David Babani’s Menier Chocolate Factory, continuing its nearly unstoppable assault on the West End, transferred its double bill of Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita to the Trafalgar Studios yesterday.
They’ve currently got two shows on Broadway, running on opposite sides of the same street — La Cage Aux Folles won the Tony this year for Best Revival of a Musical, and Douglas Hodge and Terry Johnson won Tony’s for Best Actor in a Musical and Best Director of a Musical; while A Little Night Music saw Catherine Zeta-Jones winning for Best Actress in a Musical (she has now departed the production and been replaced by fully paid-up Broadway and Sondheim Baby, Bernadette Peters, starring opposite Elaine Stritch who has taken over from Angela Lansbury as Madame Armfeldt). And in the West End, the Menier has already got Sweet Charity at the Haymarket.
Just last week the New York Times published a feature on the Menier, trumpeting the fact that, “Unlike anything now in New York, the Chocolate Factory is the rare commercial theater operation that pumps out critically acclaimed hit shows on shoestring budgets”; and suggesting that, such is the success of the operation, it may be pumping out that business model Stateside in time: “Its recent successes on Broadway has inspired Mr. Babani to envision a branch of the Chocolate Factory in New York someday.”
Although theatres like the National and the Donmar Warehouse are regular New York presences, and Sam Mendes’s current Bridge Project attempts to marry the creative divide by casting shows from the acting pools of both America and Britain and touring its shows to both London and New York, we’ve never had a truly transatlantic theatre operation which operates in both cities simultaneously, so that would be a radical departure indeed. And especially interesting given that the Menier operates entirely without public subsidy. Instead, it adopts the kind of model that many subsidised theatres work with, which is to take “enhancement money” from commercial producers who then have rights in the future life of the work.
Yesterday’s double-bill of Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita, for instance, has in addition to Babani and Sonia Friedman Productions, Broadway money men Robert G Bartner and Norman Tulchin, plus Bob Boyett (also a major funder of the National Theatre) above the title, alongside one other British producer Tanya Link, joining a West End team for the first time.
The producers kindly laid on egg and chips (the meal that Shirley Valentine cooks, onstage, for her husband in the first act of the play) between shows for critics; it would have been nice if Meera Syal, who plays the character, had done the honours herself, and Douglas, the heartthrob restaurant manager at the Menier, had arrived to serve it. But you can’t have everything. Babani laid Douglas on, so to speak, to occupy the seat next to me for Educating Rita instead (and he told us tales of nappy changing duties for his newly-born daughter). Seriously, though, one of the joys of places like the Menier is an ongoing relationship that audiences have with the place, and that includes the staff. Babani runs the Menier, like his shows, on a shoestring: according to the New York Times, “the theater’s permanent staff includes only Mr. Babani and two other employees, a radically smaller operation than American theater companies”; I don’t think that body count includes the restaurant staff.
The same is true of the Trafalgar Studios, which has enough of a turnover for me to be on first name terms with its excellent manager Dean Stewart, as I was of his predecessor Adam Knight (who is now at the Savoy). But if Trafalgar has an extremely welcoming front-of-house, it’s surely time now to extend that welcome to the seating. The Menier finally replaced its horrible old red benches with far more comfortably cushioned ones, so perhaps the Trafalgar could at last pay some attention to its ghastly seats, whose springs seem to have entirely sprung (and whose armrests, of course, mysteriously vanished when the old Whitehall theatre was first reconfigured in this way).
This newspaper’s Tabard diary column drew attention a few weeks ago to how horrible this conversion is. Its architect Tim Foster recently spoke out against Leicester’s new Curve Theatre at a conference on theatre engineering and architecture, publicly declaring, “I’m going to say what everyone is thinking, but too polite to say. Curve is a dreadful theatre and a dysfunctional building.” Tabard answered that it “concurs entirely, but would also point out that Foster could have been talking about his own practice’s conversion of the perfectly lovely Whitehall Theatre into the vertiginous mess of the Trafalgar Studios.”
Foster insisted on replying to The Stage, arguing back, “We’re talking chalk and cheese here. The Curve is a brand new £60 million theatre, paid for with taxpayers’ money and supported by the arts council. Trafalgar Studios is a very low cost and temporary conversion of a commercial theatre, which has had the effect of turning its financial fortunes around. It may not be perfect but it fulfils a real need for an alternative to conventional proscenium theatre space in the West End, as its success demonstrates. Let’s not get dewy eyed about the old Whitehall. It too was a pretty bad theatre with some nice Art Deco decoration (still there). It was unpopular with producers (and audiences) and had been dark for six months prior to its conversion. Now it’s a vibrant place where people want to go. Obviously not Tabard!”
Foster may have indeed delivered a very low cost conversion, but it shows. And it’s not exactly low cost for audiences to visit: tickets for the Willy Russell plays go up to £39.50 each. That’s a lot to pay for seats that are now probably the most uncomfortable in the West End. But if we’re stuck with the vertiginous rake for now, it’s good to know, at least, that Foster says this is a “temporary conversion”; perhaps it’s time for Ambassador Theatre Group to come up with another solution.