I love the West End with all my heart, but I fear that the soul is going out of it, now that a deadly combination of chronic greed and desperation is setting in all over (and that’s before we even reach the Olympics, and the audience drifts away with them).
Whether it’s Thriller Live, now hogging the Lyric on Shaftesbury Avenue - once a major address for plays - for an indeterminate run, and an even more ghastly, opportunistic successor Respect La Diva that opened on Friday offering a pop jukebox parade that is more end-of-the-pier (and the road) than even a Vegas floorshow or cruise ship, the West End is scraping the barrel now.
Fortunately, the latter is acting only as a filler at the Garrick, but then Chicago, which we thought we’d finally seen off, returns there now and I’m sure for ever from November 11, so all hope for this venerable theatre is extinguished both as fast as one’s eardrums are pierced by the cacophony of noise currently on offer there, or the prospect of ever seeing something new there again in the future.
It’s difficult to explain just how bad Respect La Diva is and how little respect, let alone dignity, it brings to the West End. No, not every musical revue can be Side by Side by Sondheim, or even The Rat Pack Live, but this noisy, nasty and cheap show fails even by the low standards it sets itself to provide anything more than a perfunctory parade of songs that were once sung by divas from Aretha Franklin to Beyoncé, some of it linked by an unspeakably feeble narrator (sometime X-Factor runner-up and Eurovision entrant Andy Abraham) and a chronically embarrassing device of an ambitious stage manager with singing aspirations.
OK, one terrible show doesn’t spell the death of the West End in and of itself; but it’s surely a sign of the times that the writing is on the wall when shows like this get given house room. But even the West End’s attempts at real quality are oddly doomed by the greed of the producers in putting them on: while it is undoubtedly welcome and ambitious for the Theatre Royal, Haymarket to offer a residency to a director of Trevor Nunn’s calibre to curate a season of work there as its artistic director, it then beggars belief that it should charge a whopping £90 premium price on its current run of The Tempest plus the next show under his auspices, The Lion in Winter. (And yes, Respect La Diva has a premium price ticket, too: £55 against its £40 regular top price).
I’ve decided to start naming and shaming the shows that impose these iniquitous inflated prices — my weekly Sunday Express theatre round-up always includes a header of the shows I’m covering that week, in which I offer a quick reference guide to the show’s title, a star rating, the theatre name, box office telephone number, and the price range. In yesterday’s column, I duly published prices in full, with an extra mention for the premium prices: for The Tempest, they are £11-£60, premium £90; and for the current tour of Dirty Dancing that I reviewed at Bristol Hippodrome, they are £19.50-£44.50, premium £75.
And it’s revealing, too, that immediately below those is an entry for the National’s new production of The Kitchen, with price of just £12 to £30. That’s a third of the top price of seeing The Tempest at the Haymarket. Now, of course, the National have a huge government subsidy - the biggest in all of British theatre - whereas the Haymarket operate entirely without one; but audiences may simply give up on the West End entirely at this rate (and these rates), and simply go to the National where they are more welcome, with both more comfortable and welcoming facilities and the certainty of a quality threshold, too.
But it’s not just the National: we are blessed with many alternatives to the over-priced West End in London that theatregoers can simply avoid it entirely. I also caught up on Saturday evening with Alexi Kaye Campbell’s ambitious and provocative new play The Faith Machine at the Royal Court, where the best seat in the house (and most plush and most comfortable of any theatre in town) costs a mere £28.
Meanwhile, I also saw not one but two terrific shows at Southwark Playhouse in its two adjoining studios: the Friday night opening of The Belle’s Stratagem, and then a Saturday matinee for the a new (and brilliant) production of the Jason Robert Brown musical Parade. Southwark Playhouse is far from comfortable (especially in the damp Vault, where Parade is playing and the tiny metal chairs are bolted tightly together) and more than a little chaotic, where on Saturday afternoon there were two shows going up simultaneously, but only a solitary person staffing the box office. (Southwark Playhouse’s PR responded to a tweet in which I complained about this by saying that they usually have two people on box office, but one had rung in sick).
But even a late booked ticket at Southwark Playhouse is only £22.50: the theatre operates an airline-type sliding scale ticket scheme; the earlier you book, the cheaper it is, with seats starting at £10, then going up to £16, before they top out at £22.50. As Libby Purves writes in her review in The Times today of The Belle’s Stratagem, “It would work well down river at the Globe, but how grand to have such quality and fun so close at hand for weary southbound commuters: yours for a tenner right under London Bridge station. Theatrical enterprise like this makes you proud to be British.”
And that’s where regular and/or organised audiences will gravitate now that the West End has outpriced itself to all but those on expense accounts or discount ticket deals, which now polarises itself at two extremes only: those for whom no expense can be spared and the bargain basement (a friend recently commented that the pound shop that is the West End is rapidly turning into a 99p store).
It’s an extreme position for the commercial theatre to have adopted, and will lead to its abandonment by anyone who wants to plan their theatregoing with any kind of regularity without breaking the bank; they will simply get in early to the Donmar, Royal Court, Almeida and the quality fringe like Southwark Playhouse.