We want fun at the theatre

In hard times audiences need happy and familiar plays, says Paul Vallely

Monday 02 February 2009 01:00

Up here in the provinces (Manchester in my case) we have had the benefit of seeing the new production of Alan Bennett's long-lost play Enjoy in its cut-down and much improved version, starring Alison Steadman and David Troughton, so we know what all the fuss is about. It's revealing, though, that in London the play has taken £1m in advance bookings before it has even opened. Such is the power of reputation.

Expect to see a lot more of it as the recession tightens. Advance sales in the West End don't have much to do with the good report of the critic from The Oldham Chronicle when the play was at the Lowry in Salford last September. (Actually, he perplexingly managed to find the production both hilarious and tedious at the same time.) It's more to do with the fact that Bennett is a safe bet, as is the assumption that most theatregoers won't remember that the play flopped at its premiere, closing after about seven weeks.

Apparently, sales of baked beans rise during a recession. It's not just to do with the fact that beans on toast is cheap. It's also a search after something reassuring from our childhood days. When times are bad people want the equivalent of comfort food in the theatre too. Hence the Bennett. And a revival of Tom Stoppard's classic Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. And Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Not to mention Rowan Atkinson's queueing-round-the-blocks Oliver!.

Not that I'm knocking any of that. The point of art is that it doesn't have to die with its time but can continue to speak to a subsequent generation. But we have to distinguish art from the feelgood escapism of nostalgia. Mamma Mia!, which was the biggest selling UK movie of last year, illustrates the dangers. This jolly film traded on a stage musical as well as a rich vein of bouncy Seventies hits, but utterly ignored the vein of Nordic bleakness that could have been mined from the lyrics.

That's what is attractive about the Bennett. Whereas in the Seventies Enjoy puzzled audiences – because it was not the donnish waggery or cosy North Country comedy expected of Bennett – this time it looked dark and modern rather than merely expressionist or absurd. What seemed surreal in the Seventies now looks prophetic in a world in which heritage has replaced history and Big Brother has come to pass, through reality television rather than police surveillance.

Manchester is currently enjoying the London production of Mary Poppins. (In the provinces we are doomed to see shows either before or after the time that the metropolis is chattering about them.) In the stage show, unlike the Disney version, Mr Banks is sacked for turning down a pre-credit-crunch wonder-deal, which then turns sour and prompts the bank to give him his job back. If only the old virtues were so rewarded in the real world. The recession would be over already.

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