We are, of course, already beholden to the subsidised theatre for most of the creative wealth in every area of our theatrical life, from the talent — actors, directors, designers, writers and other personnel — trained, nurtured and supported there, to the audience development that it constantly forges, too, building relationships with its audiences that establishes and feeds a theatregoing habit that then spreads far beyond it.
Some of the West End’s biggest hits, from Les Miserables and Matilda - the Musical to War Horse and One Man Two Guvnors began there — the first two at the RSC, the latter pair at the National.
Then there’s Chichester Festival Theatre, with three shows currently in the West End (Singin’ in the Rain, Sweeney Todd and the double bill of South Downs and The Browning Version); and the Royal Court, with its current residency of recent Sloane Square hits at the Duke of York’s.
But this is purely commercial exploitation of product that has been established at some of our leading subsidised sector’s home theatres. What about trying to establish a subsidised sector ethos for the West End, with some of its leading talents but without its underlying cushion of public subsidy?
Various directors over the years have gone on from running buildings to attempting something like that, from Peter Hall, who after he left the National set up the Peter Hall Company as a producing vehicle for his own shows, but he relied on the kindness (and expertise) of commercial men like Duncan C Weldon, Lee Menzies and Bill Kenwright in turn to run the show(s) for him.
More recently, the Theatre Royal, Haymarket has brought on board a rotating round of temporary artistic directors that have included Jonathan Kent and Trevor Nunn, respectively former artistic directors of the Almeida and RSC/National, to establish a more permanent sense of artistic identity there. This has, however, been something of an ad hoc arrangement, and the theatre is currently simply operating as a receiving house for hire — interestingly, of course, of One Man Two Guvnors from the subsidised National Theatre.
But last Thursday Michael Grandage and his former Donmar executive director James Bierman, who announced a plan to set up an independent production company together last year following Grandage’s departure from the Donmar (which Bierman had already left to go briefly to the Almeida), showed their hand by revealing their plans for an inaugural West End residency, presenting a slate of five new productions - including a world premiere, two Shakespeares, and two revivals of 20th century plays — at the Noel Coward Theatre, kicking off in December.
You can take the man out of the subsidised theatre, but can you take the subsidised theatre ethos out of the man? At a private briefing on Thursday afternoon, Michael and James explained some of their headline commitments to me, which includes affordable pricing (over 200 tickets will be available for just £10 for every performance, and not just those in the worst locations but around the house; a total of 100,000 tickets across the season); regular access performances for every production that offer StageText and audio-description; a full education programme; and an associate director and designer programme to bring on the talent on the future.
That’s quite an undertaking for an enterprise that will be established and run purely on the results of its box office. Naturally it is seeking investment to cover the costs, though (unlike the subsidised sector), those costs have to be repaid to the investors if and when the productions recoup. So the enterprise carries a lot of risk; but it heavily mitigated by the stunning line-up of actors that Grandage has already employed, including Daniel Radcliffe, Judi Dench, Jude Law, Simon Russell Beale, Sheridan Smith, David Walliams and Ben Whishaw.
If these actors can’t sell tickets, no one can. So there’s an old-fashioned reliance on star casting — and since they only need to sign up for 12 week runs each, they’ve been secured on the sorts of limited contracts that stars like.
But unlike the time when Grandage took the Donmar into the West End for a residency at Wyndham’s, where costs where offset by sponsorship, there’s one big difference this time: instead of a top price of £32.50 (matching the Donmar’s own top price), this time the regular top price will be £57.50. And, following the current trend for premium prices on top of that, Michael and James suggested they would have some of those, too, to help subsidise the £10 tickets.
Just as the Donmar’s Wyndham’s season decisively changed the fabric of the West End for a season, here’s an initiative that all eyes will be on: if they can make a go of it, this could provide a new model for West End producing that has a clearly defined sense of leadership and programming, too.