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Andrzej Lukowski: Labours of love actually as theatre sees new romcom boom

Martin Freeman and Tamsin Greig in Labour of Love at London's Noel Coward Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson Martin Freeman and Tamsin Greig in Labour of Love at London's Noel Coward Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
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As Mark Shenton recently observed, there is a lot of new writing in London at the moment. The National Theatre only has a single revival playing until the end of the year and you could spend a startling amount of time wandering around the West End without happening across a musical or revival these days.

Search for a through-thread connecting this new writing, though, and one slightly unexpected and potentially bone-chilling trend becomes apparent: London is filling up with romantic comedies.

James Graham’s Richard Curtis-esque Labour of Love was one of the first new plays to open straight on to the West End in the last decade. And what a savvy choice it was: a sparkling opposites-attract comedy about an MP and his constituency manager.

Even as it ruminated on three decades in the life of the Labour Party, it engrossed audiences in Martin Freeman and Tamsin Greig’s ‘will they, won’t they?’ relationship.

Simon Stephens’s Woody Allen-ish Heisenberg was a cliche-ridden disappointment. But, in theory, it’s the sort of show that a general audience would like, and it makes sense that Marianne Elliott would programme it as the opener of her West End season.

It’s not just the West End, either: David Eldridge’s smart Beginning is playing over at the NT, while the normally scabrous David Ireland is getting in on the action – kind of – with his The End of Hope at Soho.

Is this trend good or bad? Well, the word ‘romcom’ doesn’t necessarily imply great art, though it would be unfair to these plays as some homogenous generic mass.

Despite all being boy-meets-girl stories (with jokes), the four plays are quite different from each other, and have received accordingly different critical responses. I suppose three of the four are by 40-somethings who’ve made their names with far more of abrasive work, and are now, by coincidence, looking to explore something else at the same time. To be fair, Ireland’s play unusually features a woman dressed as a mouse throughout.

It’s 2017. The year of Trump, Weinstein and more Brexit nonsense. With new writing everywhere, is it alarming that the closest to an obvious zeitgeist in mainstream theatre is… romantic comedies written by middle-aged white men?

Taken at face value, it’s not the single most inspiring development in British theatre. Set aside Eldridge and Ireland’s smaller and undoubtedly more adventurous plays and perhaps the reasons seem a bit clearer.

The West End is not an intrinsically edgy place, and if new writing is having a bit of a moment then it’s not surprising it’s ultimately abiding by the commercial rules.

Labour of Love and Heisenberg may be by playwrights who’ve thrived in subsidised theatres, but it’s difficult to imagine either play at the Royal Court or NT in their current versions: they are commercial plays in commercial theatres.

Ten years ago, their slots in the West End might have gone to a creaky Noel Coward revival or a half-baked jukebox musical.

Now new writing is in an ascendancy of sorts, is it fated to become the thing it is edging out? I never thought I’d see a ‘feelgood’ Simon Stephens play, but here it is.

Romcoms are thriving and I suspect it’s mostly because these are the perfect conditions for them to thrive: a West End receptive to new plays but still wary of risk. It’s frustrating in a way. But it still feels like a qualiied victory, a sign of some change in the air, no matter what compromises are required.

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