Headlines of the week, from Chichester to Trafalgar Studios via the Arts Council’s new Big(gest) Brother

Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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What's been in the news over the last week? Evidence for English theatre's apparent downsizing, the Arts Council's new Bi(gest) Brother interviewed, Chichester's new season, a (not-so) fond farewell to the Old Vic Tunnels and a welcome for the new regime at the Transformed Trafalgar 1 (but not the seats).

The Downsizing of English Theatre

When playwright Fin Kennedy met culture minister Ed Vaizey at an event at parliament last December, he challenged the minister on his claims that the arts financing cuts had had no impact on the theatre. Vaizey responding by asking him to provide the evidence that contradicts this-- and now Kennedy and Oxford PhD candidate Helen Campbell Pickford have done exactly that, and produced a report called Battalions with their findings.

They've spoken to representatives of 26 English theatres, from Nick Hytner and Max Stafford-Clark to the Gate's Christopher Haydon and playwrights Laura Wade and Nick Payne, and found that the cuts are already starting to bite. As Haydon says,

We have no money at all for R&D. So if a writer feels they need a workshop (or even just a reading) to try something out, we can only do this on an ad hoc basis when we can find someone else to support that … all of this inevitably puts severe limitations on the creative ambitions of our writers.

It's interesting, in the light of this, that they're importing ready-made plays that have already been developed in the US, like Ragiv Joseph's Gruesome Playground Injuries, premiered there in January, or Bruce Norris's Purple Heart that's opening next week.

The best quote came from West End and Broadway producer Sonia Friedman, whose West End transfer of The Book of Mormon began previewing at the Prince of Wales last night:

I don't get subsidy. I don't need it. But I do need the subsidised sector. That is where the talent finds its training. Writers, actors, designers and directors all cut their teeth in that environment… we need to take an overview of the cultural body politic.

The Big Brother now in charge of Arts Council England
The person officially charged with taking that overview is the chairman of Arts Council England, and in an interview in Sunday's Observer, its recently appointed new incumbent Peter Bazalgette – the former independent TV producer who brought Big Brother to Channel 4 – spoke of the new entrepreneurial culture he has brought with him.

His interviewer Andrew Anthony reports,

He talks a lot and approvingly about "cultural entrepreneurs" and never uses the word "subsidy". "Subsidy sounds like a European wine lake," he says, metaphorically turning his nose up. "It's an old-fashioned passive word that I've trained myself out of using."

Instead, in an effort to combat the concept of subsidy as a sort of artistic entitlement, Bazalgette wants to focus on Arts Council "support" as a form of cultural investment. He speaks with institutional pride of the 696 National Portfolio Organisations that receive around £340m a year from the Arts Council. He calls it "seed corn" money or "risk investment", because the organisations themselves produce two pounds for every one the council puts in. In other words the Arts Council is only providing a third of the money, down from around a half a decade ago.

It's an investment that produces results and cultural payback in more ways than purely the financial: as Bazalgette also tells the Observer,

Look at the Olympics and the opening ceremony. Stephen Daldry and Danny Boyle both came from regional theatre. They went through to the creative industries. Les Misérables, winner of four Baftas. Where did that start? The RSC. So there is a connection between investing in successful arts and the way they feed later into the creative industries.

That's very similar to what Sonia Friedman was saying in the quote from her above. Whether we're talking commercial or subsidised arts, it's all about investment; but the curious thing is that the traffic is largely one-way only. While the commercial world definitely benefits from the subsidised one, where's the payback from the commercial world to the subsidised? Sure, the RSC earned a healthy return from Les Miserables, but nothing like its creative team or Cameron Mackintosh did.

Chichester's new season

The one subsidisided theatre that nowadays seems to be supplying the West End with a seemingly endless supply of hits is Chichester Festival Theatre, with transfers under current artistic director Jonathan Church and executive director Alan Finch's watch in recent years that have included Macbeth and Enron (also both going on to Broadway), Yes Prime Minister, Calendar Girls, Sweeney Todd, Goodnight Mr. Tom and Kiss Me Kate (now in its last week at the Old Vic), as well as the double bill of The Browning Version and South Downs.

Though the new season announced last week for this summer has been drastically curtailed by the fact that the mainhouse is currently undergoing a £22m redevelopment, it still looks like several productions will be eying a future life beyond Chichester.

Indeed, the return of last year's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui starring Henry Goodman has already been announced as prior to a transfer to the Duchess. The revival of Cy Coleman's circus musical Barnum is being staged in a new temporary tent, modelled on the main house, being put up in Oaklands Park, that is being co-produced with Cameron Mackintosh, so a West End transfer is surely already on the cards (In an intriguing bit of billing, Mackintosh is himself being credited for creating a revised version with original book writer Mark Bramble; this is the first time he's taking a specific author's credit, though for Mary Poppins he is billed as its 'co-creator').

Other shows with commercial legs could be Richard Eyre's revisiting of the 50s Broadway musical The Pajama Game (starring the wonderful pairing of Hadley Fraser and Joanna Riding) and Jeremy Herrin's revival of Julian Mitchell's 80s play Another Country (which hasn't been revived in London since its original run launched the careers of the likes of Rupert Everett and Kenneth Branagh, and saw Daniel Day-Lewis and Colin Firth take over from them).

Old Vic buries the Tunnels

Regular readers will know that there's no love lost between me and the Old Vic Tunnels, which I've previously described here as "London’s least appealing, most appalling venue, an indescribably damp, chilly and grubby space."

So I'm hardly weeping at the news last week that it is to close in mid-March. It always struck me as a weird move for the Old Vic to associate its 'luxury' brand of heavily-sponsored theatre with this grungy alternative space. Of course, the Old Vic, like all theatres, wants to attract younger audiences – it was indeed as a response to this desire that the Young Vic was originally established just down the road in the 1970s, only for it to become institutionalised in turn.

But did young have to mean a place that was so relentlessly grimy and uncomfortable as the Tunnels?

Trafalgar transformed – except the seats 

Another 'young' theatre, albeit created out of a very old one, is Trafalgar Studios, formerly the 1930s art deco Whitehall (whose original features are now mostly hidden), and offering enhanced levels of discomfort upstairs as well as down. Again, regular readers will know of my campaign against Trafalgar Studios 2 (which my determination not to visit is about to be challenged by the re-appearance there of Jack Thorne's Mydidae, which I missed at its Soho premiere last year but don't want to miss again, so may be forced to see there).

Now Jamie Lloyd has taken over Trafalgar 1 and relaunched it as a home for his own resident company, with his favoured designer Soutra Gilmour reconfiguring the space, too, for what has called 'Trafalgar Transformed'. There's a new vibe about the place from the moment you enter the box office foyer and downstairs bar, with hip contemporary music is being piped around the place and there's softer lighting in the bar as well.

Seeing Jamie's first brilliant and bracing, violent and visceral production of Macbeth christen the space last week, it's clear that a new era for this theatre has been launched. But my welcome has to be tempered by the fact that the horrible seats remain, crowding the audience in with no legroom or width room either, to the seats that have no arm rests.

You don't mind a similar absence of armrests and tight squeeze in the front discounted rows of the NT, because they're a bargain at just £12. But here, with tickets reaching a whopping £54.50, they're an outrage. As someone tweeted me the other day, "Agree with everything you said about Macbeth - fantastic production, dreadful seating (and I was on front row last week!)." And another commented, "I got tickets for my birthday and couldn't believe how much my parents spent!"