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Short Shorts 25

Michael Billington is currently in the middle of a blog series in which he is providing a A-Z of modern drama, and this week he got to L is for Lousy Plays. L could also be for lousy timing.

In his opening paragraph, he writes of the “virtual disappearance of the truly bad play”, and explains, “This has happened for a simple reason. Production costs are now so high that commercial theatre can no longer afford to mount the kind of rubbish that was a staple part of my early reviewing life. And why would anyone go out and see second-rate theatre when they can stay at home and watch second-rate television?”

But then as if to immediately disprove him straight away, this week has brought up the opening of Zach Braff’s All New People, which as I blogged yesterday, has been widely declared to be a pretty bad play (except by the Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer and The Stage’s own Jeremy Austin).

Braff, who is best known for his contributions to first-rate television and therefore has a ready following, has used his celebrity to persuade a leading London management ATG Productions to put it on, and given them the insurance of lending his own star presence to the cast. What’s on the one hand a vanity project for him is also possibly a cynical one for the producers, hoping to cash in on his fame without paying too much attention to what he’s actually written.


Stephen Sondheim was in town recently to attend a new cast recording for Sweeney Todd (and will be again next week to see that Chichester production transfer into the Adelphi, as well as receiving the Critics’ Circle annual award for services to the arts that I previously wrote about in my earlier Short Shorts 16 blog). He gave an interview to Matt Wolf in the Evening Standard, and revealed that “for all his reshaping of the musical theatre, it’s plays that Sondheim seeks out when in London (though he says Matilda ‘sounds like fun’).”

So what’s on his list? On that trip, he saw She Stoops to Conquer at the National, directed by Jamie Lloyd who had directed the Donmar’s production of Sondheim’s Passion. But, the piece goes on, “When he returns, he wants to see the Hockney exhibition and much else besides. ‘In New York, you’re starved for plays, except Off-Broadway, so when I’m here, I want to go to the National and the Tricycle and the Almeida and the Royal Court and also and also and also.’ Sondheim laughs. ‘The list goes on’.”

Yet all those houses he mentions aren’t commercial offerings, either; and it’s arguable that we are starved of plays in the West End even more than they are on Broadway. At least New York has the institutional Roundabout and Manhattan Theatre Club both offering a permanent play presence on Broadway now, mostly with revivals, at the American Airlines and Samuel J Friedman Theatres respectively; but commercial producers there also take more risks with brand-new plays than the West End ever does.



In the next two months, through to the end of April, there will be no less than eleven new productions of plays opening on Broadway, including revivals of Death of a Salesman, The Best Man and A Streetcar Named Desire, the transfers of One Man Two Guvnors and End of the Rainbow from London, and Broadway bows for Clybourne Park, The Lyons and Peter and the Starcatcher, all previously seen off-Broadway; the Roundabout’s Broadway bow for Don’t Dress for Dinner, once a long-running West End hit; plus two new plays, Magic/Bird at the Longacre and Manhattan Theatre Club’s world premiere of David Auburn’s The Columnist.

Across the same two months, by comparison, we have (in Olivier eligible terms) two plays at the National (the 1953 play Moon on a Rainbow Shawl and the solo play Misterman), a West End revival of Long Day’s Journey into Night, the transfer of Chichester’s double bill of The Browning Version and David Hare’s South Downs and The Duchess of Malfi at the Old Vic (while their current show Noises Off moves across the river to re-open at the Novello).

Of course, we also have other play openings at the Donmar, Almeida, Young Vic, Lyric Hammersmith, Royal Court Upstairs, Arcola, Print Room, Finborough, Tricycle, Orange Tree, Hampstead, Gate, Riverside Studios, Soho and Barbican — the list, as Sondheim says, goes on (and on and on); but on purely numerical terms, Broadway is actually beating the West End in terms of plays at the moment.


Finally, some quotable quotes:

  • Lindsay Duncan, interviewed in last Sunday’s Observer, on the ephemeral charm of the theatre: “”You can’t get it back. You were either there or you weren’t. It makes it precious.”

  • Eve Best, also interviewed in last Sunday’s Observer, on the art of acting: “It is never about leaving yourself behind - that is not possible. It is more a stretching out - like having an elastic band on the end of your fingers and lassoing, far out, things much bigger than you.”

  • And last (and always least), Tim Walker offered a bizarre paean of praise to Patrick Stewart’s head in the Sunday Telegraph last weekend: “What a piece of work is Sir Patrick Stewart’s head. There is nothing standard about its dimensions: where normally the frontal region is smaller in size than the parietal towards the back, this man’s dominates. From a shining pinnacle a few inches up from his ears, it sweeps down like the nose of a Boeing 747. It is striking, awesome and possessed of undoubted nobility.” And he ends his review by actively looking forward to his future passing: “It is always a pleasure to see Sir Patrick’s remarkable head. What a great performance there is to be out of it yet, albeit posthumously, as Yorick.”

5 Comments

I hate to keep coming to the defense of Zack Braff, but what makes you thing it was his decision to say I'll star in my play if you'll produce it to the folks at ATG. Given ATG's penchant for star driven plays in their theatres I have a feeling that it was they who said: If you'll star in it, we'll produce it. After all Mr Braff didn't appear in the plays original production in New York.
Also in your item about Broadway hosting more new plays than the West End, you seem to have grouped the Almeida and Donmar into the non Olivier eligible group and I beleive that both theatres are so that would bring your numbers up a bit for the West End - and isn't the Young Vic also eligible? But more to the point , the West End isn't award centric the way the Broadway is and shouldn't you be proud of that? Just how many plays opened on Broadway in January, February and March as compared to the West End? I believe the high point of Broadway openings in that period has been the William Shatner retropective one man show - whereas over here we've had among others - Hay Fever, Absent Friends, Importance of Being Earnest, Master Class, The Recruiting Officer, She Stoops to Conquer and of course All New People. Broadway is stacked with lots of openings in the latter part of March and all of April because of the Tony Awards deadline. If one were to spread the Broadway season evenly over the year one would find that it's almost a wilderness compared to the West End.

@Laurence Kupp: Thank you for the latest of your regular contributions to this blog. I am flattered that you pay it so much attention!

I am happy to stand corrected on the Olivier eligibility stakes of the Donmar (which I know is) and the Almeida (though it never seems to get any!); but I believe the Young Vic is only eligible in the Affiliate Theatre category, not the main awards. You are also, of course, right that my comparison of the West End and Broadway was unfairly skewed by the fact that I was looking at the two most productive months of the B'way year (thanks, as you rightly say, by the imminence of the Tony Awards deadline); but it's certainly the case that as far as new plays go, there are still more of them on Broadway, even if concentrated in narrow two-month window, than the West End typically fields, where revivals rule.

I'm sure some of them aren't, but I'm pretty certain at least some of Complicite's The Master and Margarita (Barbican), DV8's Can We Talk About This? (Lyttelton), David Edgar's Written on the Heart (Duchess), The King's Speech (Wyndhams), Mike Bartlett's Love Love Love (Royal Court) and the revival of John Holman's Making Noise Quietly (Donmar) are Olivier-eligible..?

I think All New People probably illustrates an interesting difference between London and New York, in that it was clearly a reasonable success off-Broadway in a 300 seat theatre, but as virtually every London theatre of that size is subsidised then clearly his play was never going to get programmed in an equivalent venue. So realistically using his name to put it on in the West End was probably the ONLY way it was ever going to get on in London. It is a total stinker, but given the New York reviews were generally positive I can see Braff probably had more reason to expect it to go down well in the UK than was actually the case... (I'm probably just giving him the benefit of the doubt because I like Scrubs)

This Zac Braff thing is getting really tedious.

The press – led, it seems, by you Mark - are behaving as though Katie Price had produced Coriolanus and cast herself as Volumnia.

I haven’t seen the play – I don’t know Zac Braff – but I have seen his work – often - and he is exactly the type of talent we need in the West End.

So it didn’t work? Get over it!

What happened to the right to fail?

Shut it! – and get back to business....

@David Johnson: Of course there's a right to fail -- but at £49.50 regular top price (and £66.50 premium price), both before booking fees, critics have the right to comment and warn. I have already done that, I concede -- but it is at least an interesting coincidence that, just when Michael Billington writes of "the virtual disappearance of the truly bad play", one that most have deemed is one has now arrived to disprove that. So that's why I returned to it today.

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