New plays in the West End are thinner on the ground than ever. In fact, there’s only one play currently there that originated there under commercial auspices: The Mousetrap, and that, of course, first opened in 1952 (after a prior pre-West End tour), all of 60 years ago.
Of the rest, The 39 Steps came to the West End via runs at Leeds and the Tricycle and The Woman in Black via Lyric Hammersmith, or are transfers from the National (War Horse, One Man Two Guvnors), the Royal Court (Posh), Chichester (South Downs in its double bill with The Browning Version and the return, yet again, of Yes Prime Minister) or Hampstead (Chariots of Fire, beginning performances at the Gilegud tomorrow).
Otherwise, there’s a limited run for Gatz from New York’s Elevator Repair Service, as part of LIFT, at the Coward, and some revivals, like the pair of Michael Frayn plays, Noises Off (from the Old Vic to the Novello) and Democracy (from Sheffield’s Crucible to the Old Vic, where it opened last night) and a few commercial revivals of What the Butler Saw, The Sunshine Boys and Long Day’s Journey into Night.
That’s slim pickings indeed; but as I’ve said here before, the picture is skewed by the fact that in London, at least, we have a wealth of non-commercial theatre to draw on, from new plays at the National and Royal Court to Hampstead, the Bush and Tricycle, amongst others. And it occurred to me watching the premiere of actor-turned-playwright Stephen Beresford’s debut play The Last of the Haussmans at the National on Tuesday that it was precisely the sort of play a producer like Michael Codron might once have opened ‘cold’ in the West End.
Indeed, as I wrote in my review for The Stage, “This production is West End ready and could transfer there tomorrow (and probably will).” Nowadays the creative risk is taken instead by the National, where it also has a ready-made and receptive audience waiting to receive it.
The West End, by contrast, has many problems, not least that the audience has to be built up from scratch for each production: never mind that producers and their marketing companies have extensive mailing lists that they can target to find them, it’s still a new job each time. The West End is, in any case, not a single audience but a lot of different ones, from tourists and out-of-towners to local residents and regular theatregoers.
The West End also has to recoup its costs purely from box office, unlike the National and other venues that are cushioned and cocooned by various degrees of subsidy and sponsorship. So the challenge for West End producers trying to make a go of new plays is even greater — not least in a world where the literary agents of most playwrights will shop their plays first to the subsidised theatres anyway.
So it’s hardly surprising that plays are thin on the ground in the West End. But the vacuum has also created an opportunity, hence the announcement last week that I’ve already written about of Michael Grandage’s new 15-month residency at the Noel Coward Theatre starting in December. Though four of the five plays are revivals, including two Shakespeares, it’s great to see a brand-new play, John Logan’s Peter and Alice starring Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw, amongst them.
It has already created a massive buzz — I’m told the cheap seat offering of £10 for some stalls and dress circle seats is already sold out. But it also proves something else: there’s a hunger and appetite for quality theatre in the West End. The audience already knows, thanks to Grandage’s past track record at the Donmar Warehouse and its residency at Wyndham’s which may well be the blueprint for this, what that brand is. And they’re putting their money where Grandage’s talent is.