Short Shorts 71: The changing face(s) of the West End
Kenwright’s absence (temporary, we hope)
Could the West End be on the brink of a major revolution, or least evolution? For the first time in over 24 years, Bill Kenwright currently has no show running in the West End. (He’s always had at least one, and usually more, on the boards, with Blood Brothers continuously in the West End since he brought it back to the West End in 1988, though he wasn’t involved in its original 1983 production).
But that closed last summer, and Cabaret, the Rufus Norris revival he first produced in 2006 and brought back to the Savoy last year, was the last of the current crop of Kenwright shows on the boards until it closed on January 19. I doubt he’ll be absent from the West End for too long – and he still has an amazing roster of popular favourites on the road, from Blood Brothers to the latest from his Agatha Christie company Go Back for Murder, which opened in Windsor last month and is now touring.
There’s also his clutch of Lloyd Webber’s, including the inevitable Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (back on the road from next Tuesday), Evita (touring again from May) and Starlight Express (on the road now).
He also did a lot of the refurbishment work on reshaping Love Never Dies in the West End – without credit or remuneration, though he was a co-producer of it. But the touring rights were awarded to another producer instead, even though he was personally responsible for rehabilitating the show in the West End and his restructuring was subsequently used for the far more successful Australian premiere of the show last year.
The show also went on, after Kenwright’s work on it, to get seven Olivier Award nominations, the most of any show that year. Not bad going for a show that had opened to poor reviews, and was floundering at the box office in the wake of those earlier notices – but then got rave reviews when it re-opened to the press after Kenwright had gone in.
National Theatre gains
Michael Codron is, of course, staging a brilliant swansong by returning to the West End with Quartermaine’s Terms, a play he previously produced the original 1981 production of, which officially marks the end of another West End era. He was, in the years that followed, soon eclipsed by the producing might of the National in attracting some of his best writers, from Simon Gray to Tom Stoppard and Michael Frayn, whose work he would once offer the premieres of, but subsequently had to content himself with merely transferring to the West End.
It was, however, interesting that by the time they let Frayn’s Democracy out of the South Bank, they had already run it in both the Cottesloe and Lyttelton for long seasons, so Codron’s West End transfer was very much after the fact. Now, however, the National is making great strides at being its own commercial management, freezing out West End producers entirely.
And before the end of next month, it will have four separate shows in town – as well as the warhorse of War Horse and the continuing success of One Man Two Guvnors, it will soon also have The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, at the Apollo from March 1 and the Alan Bennett double bill of Untold Stories at the Duchess from March 22.
I also hear that The Effect, currently running in the Cottesloe to February 23, is actively still searching for a West End transfer house later in the year.
New West End companies
We’ve also got new competition to the status quo in the West End by the trailblazing arrival of the Michael Grandage Company, with its four play, star-led residency at the Noel Coward Theatre, which followed his own colonisation of Wyndham’s before it for an extension of the Donmar Warehouse ethos when he ran that. No wonder the star power feels a bit like it has deserted the Donmar itself, since Grandage is effectively continuing the brand he helped make under his own name elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Grandage’s own directorial protegee Jamie Lloyd – who was his associate on productions like Guys and Dolls and Evita in the West End – tomorrow begins performances of his new production of Macbeth, starring James McAvoy in the title role, for his own company Jamie Lloyd Productions under the banner of commercial producers ATG who have given him the Trafalgar Studios 1 as his own toy theatre to play with.
The season has already been dubbed the Trafalgar Transformed season, with ATG giving Lloyd and his designer Soutra Gilmour carte blanche to reconfigure the space entirely. And by chance I was wandering through town the other day when I ran into Lloyd, who gave me an impromptu, informal tour of the revamped space.
And I have to say I am thrilled with what I saw, at least in rough form. The vertiginously raked auditorium has lost some rows at the back so it is a lot less steep, and the stage has been raised several feet, too, to create a greater intimacy between the remaining seats and the stage, with the front row on the stage itself and not set apart from it. New seats also wrap around to the other side of the stage, to create onstage seating there, too. That’s a brand-new dynamic for this space, and though the unlovely banks of red tip-up seats, without armrests, are still in there, the Trafalgar Studios has indeed been transformed.
If only something could now be done to Trafalgar 2, too, I’d be even happier. I’d love to see Lloyd take over that space, too, and create an integrated venue. As it is, he told me of his plans to hold readings and events in the bar, and after Macbeth has another three exciting projects lined up already, with a second season after that already forming in his mind, too.
More West End partnerships
I’m also hearing that, after Nicholas Hytner finally departs the National Theatre, he is looking at setting up shop in the West End with Nick Starr, his National Theatre executive director, to create their own company, too. That will change the game plan of the West End forever.
Though, of course, this is far from the first time that such initiatives have been tried. The Haymarket has tried to build West End residencies around directors Jonathan Kent and Sean Mathias before now, though it has since become a receiving house for the National’s One Man Two Guvnors. And of course there’s also the Old Vic model, with an unsubsidised theatre building an artistic model around a permanent artistic director in Jonathan Miller and now Kevin Spacey.
Quote of the week
Marianne Elliott, currently represented at the National Theatre by her brilliant production of Simon Stephens’s Port, and whose NT production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time moves to the West End next month to join her co-production of War Horse (see above), on taking risks with theatre:
Often, during rehearsals, I catch myself thinking, God, this is hard. Why am I always choosing such difficult plays to put on?
Theatre is incredibly demanding and you work all the hours – and I’m a mum with a little girl at home – so why bother putting everything into it if you are not producing something that is really worth doing? Something that pushes you and pushes everyone else involved? If it is just another run-of-the-mill show, then what is the point?
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