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Andrzej Lukowski: The West End is due an influx of new drama

Helen Mirren in The Audience at the Gielgud Theatre, London, in 2013. Photo: Johan Persson
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In 2014, I saw a play called Bakersfield Mist, a terrible American comedy that blithely squandered the acting talents of Ian McDiarmid and Kathleen Turner in some nonsense about a prissy art dealer having his heart melted by a belligerent redneck. Or something.

Call me a softhearted idealist, but I genuinely don’t believe a single subsidised theatre in the country would have taken it on. Instead, however, it had its UK premiere in the West End, at the Duchess Theatre.

Somewhat bemused, I asked Twitter what the last good, new play that had gone straight into the West End was. After an unsurprisingly rambling series of discussions with strangers, the conclusion – obviously somewhat subjective – was that the last one that could be adjudged to be any sort of classic was Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van, which is from 1999. Even this is somewhat problematic, due to the revelation in director Nicholas Hytner’s memoir that it only premiered in the Queen’s Theatre because star Maggie Smith really hates the Lyttelton.

But is this sorry state of affairs about to change? Could the next bona fide classic West End play be just around the corner? Quite possibly.

A recap: time was, plays just opened cold on to the West End. They might do an out-of-London tour first to get warmed up, they might not.

But in essence, any pre-war playwright from the era where Theatreland had become a thing – Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Terence Rattigan, Noel Coward – would have had their new works start their London lives in a big theatre with a commercial producer.

Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid in Bakersfield Mist at the Duchess Theatre, London, in 2014
Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid in Bakersfield Mist at the Duchess Theatre, London, in 2014. Photo: Tristram Kenton

At some point in the post-war era, this stopped happening, essentially because of government subsidy. Our increasingly vibrant subsidised sector – plus occasionally Broadway – now tosses transfer smashes for the West End to catch (or it transfers shows itself) and that’s pretty much how it goes.

There is a fairly simple reason for this: subsidised theatres are almost infinitely better set up to develop new work than West End producers. They have literary departments and a lot more shelter from financial risk. It was inevitable that they’d eclipse the commercial sector, even if it took a while.

In fact, when I interviewed the actor Romola Garai recently, she told me she believed that she’d been in the last play to premiere on the West End in the old fashion: Michael Hastings’ Calico, a 2004 flop that was withdrawn after a month (an ignominious fate unlikely to befall a subsidised show).

In fact, Garai is not quite right, though I think she’s probably correct in spirit. Since Calico, there have been world premieres for bad film adaptations (Fatal Attraction, Strangers on a Train) and ropey, flyweight comedies (Barking in Essex, The Duck House). There have been original UK productions of bad American plays that premiered elsewhere (Bakersfield Mist, The Little Dog Laughed). There have been God-awful celebrity vanity projects (Matthew Perry’s The End of Longing, Zach Braff’s All New People). There have been difficult-to-categorise ‘entertainments’ that have often been rather good (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child; Derren Brown’s shows). And there has been the odd ‘proper’ play, though no classics and always sure-fire hits thanks to celebrity casting (The Audience, Peter and Alice).

Considering how good the British are at writing plays, this seems pretty wretched, even if the logic is pretty remorseless. But insofar as it ever will change, it looks like it’s about to.

The most striking show on the immediate horizon is James Graham’s Labour of Love. It is a drama about the Labour party, co-produced by the commercial Michael Grandage Company and the subsidised Headlong.

Stars Martin Freeman and Sarah Lancashire are undeniably draws, but they’re hardly in the ‘living legends’ category, and one might imagine the subject to be off-putting to many – it will stand or fall commercially on whether or not it’s any cop.

Then, there’s Simon Stephens’ Heisenberg and JT Rogers’ Oslo, both of which come with slight caveats – they’re not world premieres and Oslo is briefly calling in at the National first – but are nonetheless bold, new plays circumnavigating transfer convention.

And opening in October with Richard Bean’s Young Marx, there’s London’s newest major theatre, Hytner and Nick Starr’s Bridge, which is virtually a West End new-writing venue. Given the array of talent lined up – including Lucy Prebble – it seems the Bridge could yield up the great new play we’re looking for.

Throw it all together and maybe toss in Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman – which premiered at London’s Royal Court but clearly didn’t have to – and what does it all mean?

A couple of things, I imagine.

An unusual number of heavyweight directors – Hytner and Marianne Elliott, plus Dominic Dromgoole with his season of Wilde plays – have moved on from their old buildings at roughly the same time, and have all elected to keep making theatre in London. This isn’t uncommon individually – Michael Grandage and Kenneth Branagh have had West End seasons in the past few years – but the fact they’ll all be operating simultaneously is clearly going to have a major impact on the tone of the West End.

And while Elliott and Dromgoole may not do second seasons, Hytner has built an actual theatre and it would look silly if he jacked it in after a year.

They’re exacerbating a gradual shift in the tone of the West End, which can probably partly be attributed to the rise of the drama-centric Sonia Friedman Productions as a major player. They have, in turn, worked a lot with the capital’s Almeida Theatre since Rupert Goold took over: the tiny Islington theatre, which had been in danger of looking rather moribund, has now launched eight transfers in the past five years.

Less happily, I suspect that a general weakness in West End ticket sales at present may be affording opportunities for straight plays and brave producers that may not have been there in recent times.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard it’s been an iffy year and worse summer for musicals – certainly it doesn’t feel like the West End is exactly awash with hot tickets. But if it means a theatre is easier to get hold of for new writing, then it’s a silver lining, at least.

If there is a change afoot, it feels like it’s more to do with an influx of newcomers than the big West End beasts changing their ways, which is kind of sad. But whatever. We still haven’t had a great, new play premiere in the West End for well over a decade. But in a year’s time, we may have had several. That is exciting.

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