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.”