These days everyone wants to be first with the news or opinion; I know I do it myself, via Twitter. But at least I wait till the show is over – and I invariably wait until I get home and it has sunk in a bit. Not everyone is so retrained; some theatres even actively encourage premature, on-the-move engagement with what they’re producing by offering ‘tweet seats’, so that people can tweet as they watch.
But it’s not just tweeters who seem to have to jump the gun. Last Wednesday, with still two and a half weeks to run to this year’s theatre year, The Guardian was already asking its critics to choose their best events of 2012. Michael Billington duly weighed in with Ten Billion, a one-hour illustrated lecture on the consequences of overpopulation and climate change that Katie Mitchell directed at the Royal Court, calling it the “most momentous theatrical performance of 2012″ that left him “shaking with fear, but also moved by theatre’s capacity to confront the emergency facing our planet.”
I’m afraid I never got to see it – but then not many did. As Billington points out, it was only seen by around 1,600 people in all. Yet he also says, “I don’t know a single person who saw it who didn’t feel it was a life-changing experience.” Let’s hope, as Billington suggests, that it will be filmed for TV: “If enough people, especially those in positions of power, could see Emmott’s lecture, it might, just might, help to save our planet from destruction.”
I wonder what will save the West End from destruction, though? Obviously we need the planet to survive first, or there’ll be no West End at all, but things need to change. As I wrote earlier this year when I reviewed the opening of the Beatles tribute band show Let It Be at the Prince of Wales Theatre for this paper, “It makes the West End hurtle ever closer to theme park oblivion. Let It Be? Let it not.”
I said the West End needs to change, and Grandage is the man who looks like he’s about to do it.
And yet, what was originally a filler being squeezed in before the arrival of Book of Mormon from Broadway in the New Year, is now transferring to the Savoy, which will squeeze out other, more worthy shows.
The same I fear is true of Rock of Ages which is closing at the Shafesbury in January, but is transferring to the Garrick in the New Year. Of course, both of those shows are only responding to market forces; if that’s what audiences want, why shouldn’t theatrical landlords and producers provide it (and keep themselves profitable, and some actors in work)?
After all, Rock of Ages at the Shaftesbury, with some 1,400 seats, plays to nearly as many people in one night than the entire run of Ten Billion did. But there’s no question which is the more important show. It’s not measured just in the numbers of how many people see something, but who sees it and talks about it, too.
The Guardian, of course, is the paper of record for the chattering classes, or at least the vocal left-leaning portion of it, so the same applies to its readership as does to those theatregoing figures: in the last published circulation figures for October, The Guardian was selling just 202,675 copies – second from the bottom of the circulation figures for what used to be called the broadsheets, with only the Independent trailing a significant way behind it with 80,001 copies sold (but making up lost ground with its mini “i” version, selling 304,691 copies). By contrast, the Sun sold 2,384,895 copies (and the Daily Mail some 1,866,701 copies); yet I’m pretty sure that the Guardian’s theatre commentary matters more than that of the Mail.
Of course, both The Guardian and Mail have newer, different business models away from the traditional print one now, with their thriving online offerings. And it is online, too, that a lot of theatre content is gravitating, too, so things are changing there. The Stage, with its revamped website, is at the heart of this, and showed its unrivalled coverage last week at covering pantomime and Christmas shows – between Monday and Thursday, it published nearly 50 reviews of shows from Dunfermline, Kilmarnock and Pitlochry to Liverpool, Leeds and of course London.
Hardly a day seems to go by without a new theatre content site arriving somewhere; each coincidentally – or not – trailing their own reader-voted awards. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, Whatsonstage.com should bathe in the glory of having initiated the phenomenon; and last Friday launched this year’s voting round with the announcement of the audience-voted nominations list at an industry party, which will be followed in February by its annual West End awards ceremony and concert, this year to be held at the Palace Theatre.
That, too, has jumped the gun a bit on the year’s end; one of the year’s biggest musical openings Viva Forever! doesn’t open till tomorrow. But also tonight another new chapter in West End history opens, when Michael Grandage returns to launch his own new company’s first year-long residency at the Noel Coward Theatre by reprising Privates on Parade that he once directed at the Donmar Warehouse.
Grandage, who of course previously took the Donmar brand into the West End with a triumphant season at Wyndham’s, is now repeating it under his own name; he’s got the same star power that he regularly used to attract to the Donmar (and has been somewhat faltering since he left there), and is even maintaining the accessible seat pricing policy that he brought to the Wyndham’s season with lots of seats available for just £10. But being a commercial venture, he’s not capping the top price in the same way. I said the West End needs to change, and Grandage is the man who looks like he’s about to do it.