Quiet on the West End front

Sheridan Morley
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No-one is standing up for Theatreland at the moment it is most under threat, argues Sheridan Morley, asking why theatre’s leaders seem to have slipped into anonymity

What is the difference between this coming weekend’s Oliviers and the Oscars which follow them next weekend, quite apart from the fact that one is British, one American, one about the theatre and one about the movies?

The main difference is, or so it seems to me, the one that exists between their governing bodies. About the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences we can know a very great deal if we take the trouble to enquire, just as we know most of what we need to know about BAFTA who give out the movie and TV awards over here.

But what do we know about the Society of London Theatre, except that it used to be called the Society of West End Theatre until the acronym SWET got too hot to handle? Can you name its leader, or what it is meant to be there for, or even who votes for the Oliviers? “A panel of professionals and theatregoers” we are vaguely told but as the Telegraph’s Charles Spencer rightly remarked at the Critics’ Circle Awards, the Oliviers are remarkably coy in naming their adjudicators.

The problem with SOLT is that it has fallen in with a terrible trend towards theatrical anonymity. Can you, quickly and without checking, tell me who runs a) the RSC, b) the Royal Court, c) the arts council? Can you even name the present arts minister? This is not about talent, or how fitted any of them are for their roles. It is just that they have all decided to crouch behind their desks at just the moment when the West End is, as I see it, more imperilled than at any time since the end of the war.

Only Nicholas Hytner has managed to escape the current passion for theatrical anonymity. As head of the National Theatre he is rightly unafraid to stand up and be counted, although he seems, oddly for an innovator, to be the last survivor of a dying breed. When Peter Hall was the National Theatre and before that the RSC, when George Devine was the Royal Court, when Norman St John Stevas was the arts minister, we at least knew who to deal with.

In the brave new world of spreadsheets we have lost that all-important figurehead, the man (or woman, this is not a sexist argument) with whom the buck can be seen to stop. Nobody is really accountable for anything, because in the end nobody is really there, they have disappeared into the crowd, no longer targets for the brickbats but equally undeserving of the bouquets. I still wish that, anywhere in the subsidised theatre since Olivier, we could point to an actor in charge of a company. In America, Roger Rees has just been appointed director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, which is more than he or any other actor can expect to achieve over here in the foreseeable future.

Moreover, although it may be possible to run a single theatre building or company in this corporate manner, the problem with SOLT is precisely that nobody seems to be especially in charge of it. Members are, of course, primarily West End producers but because they are like Regent Street shopkeepers, an association of rivals, all eager to take their share and perhaps more of a still shallow pool of theatregoers, they can seldom come to any very firm conclusions or run any meaningful campaigns.

Their membership represents a vast range of competitive producers, widely different in age, experience, background, beliefs and intentions. Some are interested in studio theatres for students, others in the Palladium for coach parties. Some only like new buildings, others cherish the old red plush and chandelier atmosphere of Shaftesbury Avenue itself. Very few theatre managers are also owners or creators (though on all three counts Lloyd Webber is an exception here) and none of them especially wants to elect a rival to be their voice or spokesperson.

There are two direct results – only when you get a manager who is also an owner, like Cameron Mackintosh, do you stand the chance of a really good and vastly expensive refurbishment such as the Prince of Wales, because most other managements have no more interest in the upkeep of the buildings their shows may occupy than a hotel guest does in the restoration of the Savoy – and I mean the hotel not the theatre. Commercial theatres for the most part in this country are occupied like public lavatories – briefly and with frequent changes of tenant.

Secondly, at a time when the West End urgently needs some coherent campaigning against, for instance, the increasingly savage parking restraints, against the various rackets for loading handling charges onto already exorbitant ticket prices, against the sheer discomfort of most theatre seats, against the ludicrously priced bars, against the tacky cloakrooms, there is simply nobody there to do it. Nobody to go on television, nobody to write to the press, nobody to scream at the arts minister or council or the mayor or Transport for London.

We have no Mr West End and we need one here and now to operate as Peter Hall once did for the subsidised theatre. By no coincidence at all, Hall now has a West End hit, Whose Life Is It Anyway? and another, The Dresser, on the way in, while his own theatre is the Rose of Kingston and that company is about to tour America.

Hall has achieved all this not just by being a great director but by standing up and shouting for theatres and theatre companies all over the country. He has made himself a familiar figure on the theatrical barricades and I wish he were not so alone up there. We need a few more noisy giants, unafraid to tackle entire governments, unafraid to make mistakes, unafraid to assert that theatre matters more than anything else in the world.

We are already hearing theatregoers’ understandable complaints about all the VAT and service charge add-ons that inflate West End ticket prices way above the price printed on the ticket. On Broadway they have come up with yet one more pricing dodge – they now also add a 5-10% maintenance charge to every ticket sold. This is supposedly going into a building fund for the preservation of New York theatres. Have you any idea how many millions of dollars are already in that fund or how few theatres are in fact being rebuilt?

It is only a matter of time before that happens over here and without a Mr West End there will be no stopping it, just as there has been no stopping any other of the so-called developments that are now giving one-time theatregoers all too many alibis for staying at home with the television. Is there any reason why theatre tickets, at least early in the week, shouldn’t be reduced to cinema levels? Do all shows have to start at 8pm, an hour of huge inconvenience for most people? How about playing every night at 6pm for those leaving the office and then again at 9pm for those leaving a restaurant or having dined at home?

For far too long, the West End has been run for the convenience of actors and stagehands. It is time we started to see it run for that of audiences. But to achieve all that or even any of it, once again we need a Mr West End. If necessary I’ll apply for the job myself. Now there’s a threat.

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