Mark Shenton: Where have all the classics gone?

Eve Best in A Woman of No Importance, one of the few classics running in the West End. Photo: Marc Brenner
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‘In with the new, out with the old’ seems to be the current theatrical mantra. All but one title in the rep of the National Theatre is a new play – and Follies, a revival of the 1971 Sondheim Broadway musical, is its only revival.

It’s the same picture across the West End, where new plays such as The Ferryman, Labour of Love, Oslo, Ink and Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle are playing, with new musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie soon following.

That’s without the usual diet of new plays at Off-West End venues including the Almeida (which this week brought us Mike Bartlett’s latest, Albion), Hampstead (The Slaves of Solitude, beginning performances on October 20), Bush (Of Kith and Kin, transferring from Sheffield to open on October 20) and the new kid on the block, the Bridge Theatre (now previewing Richard Bean’s Young Marx, ahead of opening on October 26).

Dominic Dromgoole, who once ran the Bush and more recently Shakespeare’s Globe, is a fan of both new work and the classics. In a recent interview with The Stage he commented of the current slew of new plays in town: “That’s really healthy, but you want to be able to have a conversation with older plays, too. A preponderance of new work is still a good thing, but you don’t want to lose touch with the tradition you’ve emerged from, otherwise new work is just reacting to itself.”

That’s why he launched Classic Spring, which this week brought the first of four planned Oscar Wilde plays to the Vaudeville with A Woman of No Importance. There are also a handful of classics elsewhere around town, with Chekhov’s The Seagull in a new version by Simon Stephens at Lyric Hammersmith and Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea in a fresh adaptation by Elinor Cook at the Donmar.

It’s one of the reasons, too, why I teach first-year students at ArtsEd a weekly class of musical theatre appreciation. While most of them will have seen Wicked and Les Miserables, have they heard the great (and now late) Barbara Cook?

Theatre needs to be seen in its historical context. It’s what makes a theatre critic such as Michael Billington – who has been reviewing professionally for the Guardian for 45 years – almost uniquely authoritative. That isn’t to say that younger voices should be automatically disqualified; but it makes me read Billington all the more keenly.

It’s also why I need to pay tribute to another colleague, Georgina Brown, who has been theatre critic of the Mail on Sunday for some 21 years and has just retired from the post to move to India with her civil servant husband Crispin, who has been posted there.

George, as she is universally known, is an ebullient presence and a real enthusiast, who absolutely loves the theatre and even its first-night rituals. As she stated in the announcement of her departure: “I’ve loved my career as a critic and I confess that giving up my seat in the stalls is one hell of a wrench. I shall miss the theatre terribly, especially first nights, which, unlike so many of my critical colleagues, I absolutely adore.”

As much as critics are sometimes (mis)characterised as mean-spirited and petty, there has always been a generosity of spirit to George that will be terribly missed. I feel I have watched her children, Fred and Clem, grow up in front of me, too – Fred is now a qualified doctor and Clem is training to become a lawyer – so we are losing not just George but a part of our extended critical family.