I have just sent out my 10,000th tweet — and this is my 40th Short Shorts column here, a weekly round-up in which I collect up shorter items that don’t warrant a full blog entry on their own. I only mention these landmarks because nowadays we seem to get a press release for everything that doesn’t matter — but often no press releases for things that do.
A brand-new theatre is being shown to the press today in Victoria, the St James - and when I told the PRs that I would not be able to make it to the event but that I’d like to see the release, they told me that they were thinking of not issuing it for another week, when public booking opens. Yet the artistic director is going to announce his programme today, so the news will be out there, release or not.
There was similarly no formal release earlier this week from the National to reveal the postponement of their already announced (and booking) production of The Count of Monte Cristo, due to begin performances in the Olivier Theatre in November. I only found out when a friend who had booked tickets already forwarded me the letter he’d been sent by the box office advising him of the cancellation. I can appreciate that it is only courteous for those who have already invested in the artistic policy of a theatre by buying tickets to a show there to be told first; but three days later, there has still been no official statement.
There was likewise a massive delay to the official announcement of the West End closure of Ghost - the Musical, after Baz Bamigboye first revealed in the Daily Mail that the Piccadilly Theatre had been booked for Viva Forever. There was an outcry on Twitter, once again, that the cast of Ghost had been delivered a disservice by finding out about the fate of their show in this way; but I would say, first of all, they shouldn’t blame the messenger (Baz was only doing what a good journalist does in scooping news ahead of the rest of us!), and secondly, that surely they could have looked out into the auditorium every night and realised that they were not quite the biggest hit in town, so it can’t have been the biggest surprise.
On Broadway, on the other hand, where there is far greater transparency thanks to the fact that producers share their box office revenues not only with each other but the world, Jesus Christ Superstar earlier this week issued a release whose headline declared it would close July 1, “unless business improves.”
There’s no question that as a historically iconic theatre, the Old Vic is part of our national heritage; but in a crowded part of the South Bank that is full of state funded theatres already, from the National (who were once located at the Old Vic, of course) to the Young Vic, it has had to make its own way, operating on a purely commercial basis and using the cache of its film star artistic director Kevin Spacey to attract serious sponsorship instead.
But this week, in a step that exemplifies the government’s aims to promote self-reliance and the idea of philanthropy taking the place of subsidy, the Arts Council’s £56m Catalyst Programme has announced a one-off, £5m grant to the theatre — conditional on the theatre itself raising a further £15m over the next three years - to start an endowment fund to secure the theatre’s identity as a producing house.
It is ironic, of course, that it comes in a week when it has simply acted as as a receiving house once again, hosting the transfer of Sheffield Crucible’s production of Democracy, which will itself be immediately followed by another transfer for Chichester’s Kiss Me, Kate.
As ticket prices go ever skywards, it’s hardly surprising that box office revenues are increasing all the time, too — but confounding naysayers (ie. me) who say that the trend is an unhealthy one and that audiences are going to go into decline even as the amount of money they individually pay for their experience compensates in line, SOLT’s figures for the first quarter of 2012 show an increase in both, with attendances up 11% on last year, and revenues up 13% (proving me at least right in one record: that rises in prices being paid are exceeding even the number of people paying them).
The biggest overall bounce was registered by plays, up 26% in earnings, while musicals grew by 7% revenue overall. That’s good news for the West End; and although the second quarter figures are not yet in, of course, SOLT’s President Mark Rubinstein told Variety, “That’s also looking good. I think we’ll probably end that period up on last year as well.”
That’s no doubt been propelled by a strong West End slate of shows — hits, they always say, make hits. But the question is whether this momentum can now be sustained through the imminent distractions of the Olympics. Of course I hope and pray I’m proved wrong again here and that audiences, tired of an endless diet of sport, flock to the theatre, too. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate validation of the power of theatre?
SOLT’s annual West End Live jamboree takes place this weekend in Trafalgar Square, with — for the first time ever — every single West End musical represented. I’m only surprised that its taken them so long to bring everyone on board; last year’s event, after all, attracted over half a million spectators. Why would anyone pass the opportunity to reach that number of potential audiences?
I’ll be popping along on Sunday, though I’ll be quite busy with a couple of events that I’m involved in more personally. At 5pm that day I’ll be interviewing the wonderful Penny Arcade again live for event presented under the auspices of this year’s Pride London Festival at Soho Theatre at 5pm; and then I hotfoot it down to the Playhouse Theatre to host a one-off concert performance of a new British musical version of Little Women at 7.30pm.
Regular readers of this blog will know what a keen supporter I am of new musical initiatives in London, and I am only too happy to lend my support not just from the stalls for a change but from the stage. Whether or not I am in danger of turning into the late, great Ned Sherrin (or Sheridan Morley), though, is another question.
Quote of the week: Ben Brantley, chief theatre critic of the New York Times, is currently in London for a three week busman’s holiday, and it’s good to see a fellow obsessive doing here in my hometown what I routinely do in his, namely, indulge in a constant round of theatregoing.
He’s filing regular blogs — and in one of his despatches this week, he started noticing some trends and coincidences between what he has been seeing: “After more than a week of wall-to-wall theatergoing here, strange patterns are taking shape in my crowded, sleep-starved mind, the sort of coincidences that a cultural kabbalist might make much of. In addition to the expected garden-variety trends (like children condemning their parents for destroying their lives), there are more exotic motifs to ponder. Take, for example, the violent and sustained use of a foam bat or rubber truncheon to beat people and/or furniture (an activity that showed up in four plays). Two very different works (or is it three?) have cited John Donne’s Meditation 17, the one that says ‘no man is an island’, and three have featured the protracted onstage strangulation of a woman. I am sorry to report that thus far I have noted only one instance of a mad hunchbacked industrialist who plans to take over the world, but it’s early days yet.”