In today’s Evening Standard, young columnist Johann Hari proves himself to be avid theatregoer, but makes an impressive case for the fringe over the West End.
Wittily declaring that Peter Hall’s current “wheezing, clunking” West End production of You Never Can Tell left him contemplating ritually self-harming himself – “I began to wonder if it was possible to slash my throat with one of those little ice cream scoops” – he wrote that it “epitomizes everything I hate about the laziness of the West End: a dead play no sensible person would revive, hideously mannered acting, and – most painful of all – the forced laughter of an audience desperately trying to rile itself from its boredom to convince it was watching something frightfully civilised.”
He could have added, of course, that many were probably persuaded to actually be there by the critical plaudits it had received, since most of my colleagues seemed to actively collude with the pact that this was seriously funny. (Myself, I compared it to Ray Cooney’s now-departed Tom, Dick and Harry and said of the latter, “I certainly laughed more freely than at the smug society comedy of George Bernard Shaw’s antique You Never Can Tell. Peter Hall’s production of this late 19th-century play - also coincidentally revolving around three siblings who in this case are reunited with their long-estranged father - features only one believable performance from Nancy Carroll as the oldest sister.”)
But before anyone fears that Hari is about to write off the theatre, he declares, “Don’t worry, this is not one of those portentous, pretentious ‘Theatre is Dead’ articles. There are dozens of nimble, zestful fringe theatres dancing around the arthritic stages of the West End, showing that theatre is not only alive but on amphetamines.”
And as he sees each of them, he tries to diagnose why it’s so much better. Seeing Sunday in the Park with George at the Menier, he realises that Strength Oe of the fringe is that “it can afford to take risks. No West End producer could gamble on this high-brow, high-art musical, especially since it bombed there last time” (Actually, Johann, it didn’t even play there; it was premiered in the subsidised safety of the National).
Then, seeing the Gate’s production of The Emperor Jones, he finds Strength Two: “sheer physical proximity”. And he adds, “The huge picture-box theatres of the West End were built for a pre-TV age, when the audience didn’t expect to see and hear everything. But as I watched the sweat trickle down Paterson Joseph’s forehead in the Gate, I realised how much you miss in the cavernous theatres of the West End.”
Finally, he sees On Ego at Soho Theatre, and notes, “Watching its weeping cast, Strength Three came to me: fringe shows have shorter runs, so they don’t slacken and sag by the time you finally get tickets. West End critics invariably go to first nights, when the actors are on top form and the theatre is packed with laughing, appreciative friends of the cast. If they went six months later, like many of us punters, they would too often see a show that resembles an animated exhibit at the Natural History Museum.”
These are fascinating insights. But it avoids one key economic reality: none of the above makes any money for their participants. They are all done for love. And love doesn’t pay the bills. It’s all very well being privileged enough to see such marginal work so expertly done, but it’s mainstream opportunities that afford actors the chance to actually live.