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Simon Friend: It’s time to bring more Parisian drama to London

Kenneth Cranham and Amanda Drew in the Father at Duke of York's Theatre, London. Photo: Mark Douet Kenneth Cranham and Amanda Drew in the Father at Duke of York's Theatre, London. Photo: Mark Douet
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This month there are five high-profile productions of French plays in London. Either it’s an 11th-hour reminder to Brexit supporters of what we have in common, or a long-overdue acknowledgement of the strength of commercial French theatre.

Florian Zeller is the writer behind three of these plays: The Truth, The Mother and The Father (reviewed by our critic here), which we’re bringing back to the West End for its second season at the same time as it makes its Broadway debut. Eighteen months ago his work had never been produced in the English language.

It’s not a case of overnight success. His plays have been produced frequently in France and across Europe since 2004 – just nobody here was paying attention. I saw The Father in Paris in 2013 after a strong push from his committed agent Suzanne Sarquier and, while my French is patchy, his formidable talent was obvious. No doubt this same plea went to many more senior producers over the years, yet it apparently fell on deaf ears or he was dismissed as too obscure.

If a play is successful in London, before long it will cross the Atlantic, and vice versa. But the French market is equally rich – not to mention closer to home. So is the lack of crossover down to complacency on our part? Of the more than 100 theatres in Paris, many present new writing, yet Zeller joins a small club of contemporary French writers whose plays have been produced in the West End in the last 20 years (Yasmina Reza, Gerald Sibleyras and Francis Veber, whose play The Painkiller opens this month, as part of Kenneth Branagh’s season at the Garrick). A starry production of Jean Genet’s 1947 classic The Maids, directed by Jamie Lloyd, has also just opened – the first West End production in two decades.

Perhaps the reason for the oft-bemoaned lack of original material in the West End is that many new British plays (with several exceptions) are aimed at those frequenting London’s subsidised theatres. In contrast, Zeller, Reza, Veber and Sibleyras made their names in Paris’ private theatre where, as in the West End, plays live or die based on box office returns.

For them, the need to win over their audiences has meant they have written a series of meaty leading roles, with lean but engaging narratives. Their plays clutch steadfastly to central, punchy themes, which speak of universal experience. These are intelligent plays people want to watch. It’s little surprise that Alan Ayckbourn – whose work often ticks all those boxes – is popular in France.

There are new British plays that do the same thing – and Parisian hits which wouldn’t translate: the French stage romcom for example, and the many that hark back to Feydeau. Still, there are many that, though set in Paris, would speak to audiences anywhere. I’m pleased to be developing a couple of them now, and I hope to see more cross the Channel in the coming years. Who knows, maybe we’re on the brink of a French revolution.

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