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Can’t find a theatre? Build your own

A scene from The Railway Children at King's Cross Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
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Ask most producers, and they’ll tell you that the hardest job of all is securing a theatre. On Broadway, it sometimes feels like shows hover like vultures over each other: one show’s closing is another’s opportunity to open there. This week, for example, it was announced that Gigi would take over at the Neil Simon Theatre, even though The Last Ship still has another week to run at the venue.

It must have been a nail-biting wait for the producers to find their home so late in the day. (They open their pre-Broadway run at Washington DC’s Kennedy Centre tonight, as it happens.) There are still a few other shows hovering, like a new musical version of First Wives Club that premieres in Chicago next month and could be planning a Broadway assault this season, but time is running out. They’re in Chicago till the end of March, and would want to get to Broadway before the cut-off for Tony Awards eligibility.

At least runs in London aren’t determined by such a rigid calendar as on Broadway. But West End theatre owners are increasingly hedging their bets against open-ended runs and only booking shows for 12-16 week runs – fine for a small play to get its recoupment, but problematic for shows with higher capitalisations. In the case of Taken at Midnight which transfers to the Theatre Royal Haymarket from today (January 15) prior to an official opening January 26, they’ve only got a 9-week run – dictated, in that case, by star Penelope Wilton’s availability, since she’s committed to filming the next series of Downton Abbey.

But the Haymarket isn’t waiting around, either: it’s already announced its next show, the transfer of Birmingham Rep’s production of Mary Chase’s Harvey (which hasn’t even opened in Brum yet). It, too, only has a nine-week run scheduled from March 17.

[pullquote]Is the West End turning into a touring date?[/pullquote]

Could the West End be turning into just a touring date, with productions scooting in off the road to gain critical points and West End validation, before touring again?

An alternative, of course, is for producers to find alternative spaces. The Railway Children, which has just returned to London in a purpose-built site behind King’s Cross station, couldn’t fit into a conventional theatre anyway, so needed an alternative space out of necessity. But its production model – and the high standards of comfort that it provides in its tented structure – could be adopted more widely.

Resourceful producer Tristan Baker found a site appropriately near a mainline station that’s due for imminent development, and struck a deal to build his 1,000-seater theatre there (see the time-lapse video above). It’s a win-win for everyone: the site gets public traffic and awareness, and the show has the perfect home.

He also controls and owns all secondary income, too, from bars and programmes, instead of handing them over to a theatre owner. I fully accept that this may not work for all shows, but the current tour of Barnum, for instance, would need to look no further for a London home. And with 1,000 seats, it is definitely economically viable, too.

Read more columns from Mark Shenton

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