The West End is the last place I'd go to see a play

Mainstream theatre has become a distinctly secondhand medium of artistic expression
Click to follow
The Independent Online

After Michael Hastings' new play Calico had been given a comprehensive trashing on Newsnight Review, one of the panellists, Miranda Sawyer, delivered a sneering aside. This was the kind of play, she said, which proved why the West End should forget plays and carry on doing musicals.

After Michael Hastings' new play Calico had been given a comprehensive trashing on Newsnight Review, one of the panellists, Miranda Sawyer, delivered a sneering aside. This was the kind of play, she said, which proved why the West End should forget plays and carry on doing musicals.

Whether or not Calico deserved to be dismissed in this way, there will doubtless have been a few thousand viewers who responded with a silent cheer to this casual sideways kick at theatrical seriousness. To watch a disappointing play - the unnecessarily wordy, the bombastic and pretentious, the smugly facetious - is a more profoundly irritating experience than reading an over-hyped book or spending a couple of hours at a bad film.

Theatre sets the bar higher for itself than any other medium, with the exception of opera, for the act of going out to see a play involves a social and economic commitment as well as an artistic one. A boring night at a cinema complex is quickly forgotten but a truly bad play remains scarred on the memory as indelibly as a good one.

The problem is that, if Miranda Sawyer is right, then anyone planning to go into central London will soon have to accept that, before the experience, the brain should be disengaged. For surely, if one disregards the small number of serious and probably money-losing plays that are on show, one is led to the conclusion that the mainstream theatre has become a glitzy, professional but distinctly secondhand medium of artistic expression.

The great majority of them have one thing in common: they are borrowed from other media, given a theatrical makeover and, to appeal to audiences, exploit their subjects' previous non-theatrical success. Occasionally plays have a respectable literary provenance - the performed versions of David Almond's Skellig or Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, for example - but more often they are lazy exercises in nostalgia designed to appeal to an undemanding middle-aged audience.

So those who never got around to seeing Rod Stewart, Abba or Queen perform live, finding pop concerts rather too raucous, loud and ill-organised, can enjoy easy, gentrified versions of their music in a West End musical. People who mistily recall enjoying such films as The Graduate, When Harry Met Sally, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or The Producers can relive the experience in smarter surroundings than in the local fleapit.

The success of Jerry Springer - the Opera, a show with genuine wit and originality, will have producers combing the TV schedules for a hit series that can be adapted for the stage.

Whatever the original source, a live performance in the hallowed surroundings of a West End theatre imbues the most tacky enterprise with the value-added cachet of respectability which the ritual of theatre-going, not to mention its cost, provides.

In this context, the announcement that a spectacular stage version of The Lord of the Rings will soon be upon us suggests that here will be the ultimate West End experience: lavish, expensive and essentially derivative.

Tolkien's book has, down the years, proved to have the magical ingredient of portentous escapism. His Middle Earth appeals to those who are unsettled by the real one. From the hippies of the Sixties and Seventies, who preferred cute elfin fantasy to the demands of the breadhead world, to those today made anxious by contemporary pressures, the story provides a perfect rest for mind and spirit.

Not that I have read it, nor have any intention of so doing. I have heard quite enough from my literate friends, none of whom over the age of 20 has been able to recommend it, to risk the charge of snobbery and give it a wide berth. For me, the book's most intriguing mystery is a non-literary one: how a book widely despised by so many should be voted the nation's favourite on the BBC's Big Read.

A perennial bestseller of special-effects fiction that was the basis of a trilogy of successful blockbusting films - could there be more perfect provenance for a successful West End musical? Already the show's selling points are the sheer scale of it. At £8m, it will be the most expensive musical ever staged, with a cast of over 50 and a design of such scale that few theatres would able to accommodate it.

The problem of size was, coincidentally, addressed in a recent Lords debate during which Lord Lloyd Webber argued that the age of the small, old theatres in central London is drawing to a close. Some should be demolished, he said, in order to make way for "a proper 1,000 or 1,300 seater at the entrance to Shaftesbury Avenue". If government worked with private developers, the new space "would then make the whole climate different for people coming from the direction of Piccadilly, and give us the right kind of house."

No doubt these exciting developments and proposals will thrill Miranda Sawyer, lovers of Middle Earth and the out-of-towners who wish to enjoy a relaxing, comfortable night out at a show. Those obliged to comb the South Bank or fringe venues in search of real theatre, which reflects and challenges the complexities of the world in which we live, may be less enthusiastic.

Terblacker@aol.com

Comments