Following the recent discussion of “celebrity casting” at the Finborough Theatre, I’ve been having troubled thoughts about the nature of the West End. Thanks to a small and, in some cases, brilliantly incisive audience, the discussion turned into a heated debate - not so much on the merits or otherwise of casting celebrities in plays, but of why the concept was employed, by whom, for what reasons and to what effect.
What was most immediately apparent was just the sheer size of the gulf between the thinking of West End theatres and the subsidised sector. More interesting was hearing the raisons d’etre of West End theatre put so frankly and bluntly. Paraphrased only slightly the basic argument ran: “We are in the business of making £45-per-ticket events for people who have got that sort of money.” In these days of outreach programmes, subsidised ticket costs and price reductions for the under-26/unwaged, it is quite a culture shock to hear someone effectively say 'if you can’t afford a [very expensive] ticket, that’s your problem'.
This point was quickly followed by the frank admission that, since this was their policy, they were in the business of trying to make theatre, or rather “events” - this was the word that kept cropping up - that would specifically appeal to this moneyed demographic.
I should record that the Old Vic has an ongoing commitment to subsidised tickets for under-25s, and £5 tickets for members of the Old Vic’s immediate geographical community. The excellent work done by the theatre’s youth programme since its inception, and the help this gives to young emerging artists should also be noted. But these very elements make the Old Vic wholly distinct from the other West End theatres.
The West End proper is essentially like private education: if you’ve got the money, you can go. There might be a few sops by way of bursaries or scholarships to squeeze in a few of “the deserving poor” but basically, it is only an option for the wealthy. The irony with this comparison is that it suggests a universe where British state-education is some of the best in the world. Compare the National to any West End venue you care to name: it’s hardly like comparing a bog-standard comp with Eton, is it? And the West End knows it. If you ask any commercial producer about the subsidised sector - stand well back; their irritation is explosive, their contempt blistering. Subsidies are viewed as cheating spinelessness, the compromises forced by the arts council’s politics as an untenable, bureaucratic burden.
And yet, in spite of the Arts Council’s admittedly often ridiculous box-ticking, British subsidised theatre continually artistically outstrips commercial theatre. When Matt Wolf in the Observer a few weeks ago wailed “where, oh where, is the new play?”, he only managed to broadcast his narrow West End-centric agenda (Lyn Gardner quite rightly tears him a new one here). Already this month (in London alone, and off the top of my head) the New Play could be found in the Hampstead, the Bush, the Royal Court, the Gate, Theatre 503, the Oval House and the Lyric Hammersmith.
Yes, the West End appears to be abandoning new plays at precisely the moment that new plays are enjoying their strongest bloom since the mid-nineties. And it seems harder and harder not to blame a narrow-minded, corrosively cynical management structure which appears to be utterly risk adverse. That said, when there is no funding safety net and the consequences of failure run to potential millions of personal loss, risk-aversion seems like an infinitely sensible option.
The main problem here is the cost of tickets. Putting on a new play and asking audiences to punt £10-£15 of their own money seems like a fair enough deal. It’s the price of a bottle of wine in a pub - and for much of the audience, often a straight swap. But somehow the West End has found itself in a situation where it cannot stage plays cheaply. It needs to sell large numbers of tickets which cost a minimum wage-earner’s daily pay packet (before tax) in order to break even. Putting on an untried new play and charging £45 a head is a big ask.
Worse is the fact that by and large West End theatres don’t seem to have much faith in their audience. There is more than a hint of condescension, of corrosive cynicism, and of scorched earth policy theatre-making. The whole beast is stuck in a cycle of attrition: bad production begets poor takings begets increased conservatism begets bad production, and so on. The situation seems to be such that soon the only projects generated for the West End by the West End will be Shaw, Wilde and Shakespeare acted by former-Big Brother housemates, -EastEnders and a handful of the more frequently televised theatrical knights and dames. Of course there will still be TV-backed audition musicals, American transfers, and a smattering of great work with commercial potential from subsidised theatres.
The oddest thing about the West End is - despite its apparent “event-y-ness” and the so-called glamorous atmosphere - no one actually has any affection for the buildings. Rightly so. They are, in the main, pretty dreadful. Give me the Olivier or the Barbican over anything on Shaftsbury Avenue any day. And this is another of the problems. One of the comments beneath Lyn’s piece about new work argues that it is sad that new writers are not given access to big stages. Quite right. It would be. That is why many theatres frequently bend over backwards to facilitate young writers’ access to such spaces, even if only for rehearsed readings and workshops. No one, on the other hand, is saying that it’s a shame that new/young writers aren’t writing more plays for deadly pros. arch spaces. Sure, it is a skill, and plays like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf make an enduring case for that model, but in general, don’t most people prefer different sorts of auditoria? Does every West End theatre have to be kept in this configuration? The Trafalgar Studios - in spite of its ridiculous pricing policy which refuses to let companies visiting Studio 2 charge less than £22 for full-price tickets - seems to point the way forward.
But of course, refurbs don’t come cheap, and so there needs must be countless more series of Lloyd-Webber grooming “unknowns” for musical theatre stardom before anyone can afford one. Unless, that is, either the government or a consortium with a serious amount of money step in to save the day. As it stands, the West End seems increasingly part of an entirely different universe, and one which has precious little to do with theatre.
Having said that, I’m terrifically excited to be going to see Patrick Stewart in Macbeth in the West End tomorrow night, in Rupert Goold's production that every initial review from the Chichester run assured us was an absolutely seminal production. So maybe I'm wrong about the West End after all.
Meanwhile, Michael Coveney in his latest WhatsonStage blog proves that the subsidised sector can be every bit as star-struck with his name-dropping-tastic report from the opening night of Life After Scandal. For the record, I beat Mr Coveney's star-spotting hands down last night, since by some strange stroke of fate I spent the whole bus journey back from the Hampstead sat next to a rather bemused looking Jonathan Pryce. I find it oddly comforting to know he still gets buses.