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Mark Shenton: Long-running shows can be a curse as well as a blessing

Rufus Hound in The Wind in the Willows which has booked a limited summer run at the London Palladium. Photo: Marc Brenner
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Excluding the National Theatre, there are currently plays, comedies and musicals playing in 35 West End theatres. Fourteen of those have been playing for two years or more – in most cases, many more. Jersey Boys closed last Sunday after a run of more than nine years.

Almost all these long-runners are musicals, apart from the inevitable The Mousetrap (now its 64th year at the St Martin’s) and The Woman in Black (in its 27th year at the Fortune). The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time ends a four-year West End run this June and The Play That Goes Wrong is still going disastrously wrong, night after night, at the Duchess, after two and a half years. The latter is making its Broadway bow this weekend with its original cast.

This situation has created a stranglehold on available theatres and led to a situation in which the limited supply of remaining venues is at a premium. Many West End theatre owners will only book plays for runs of 12 to 14 weeks, knowing there will always be other shows lining up to take their place.

At least this keeps the traffic moving through the West End, but it is also minimising the chance of long-runners, especially plays, establishing a foothold. The obvious exception is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which I seriously suspect could outlive me, meaning I might never step foot inside the Palace Theatre again unless I revisit the show.

By contrast, Broadway is home to just eight shows that have been running for longer than two years. It’s no wonder that Broadway has 14 openings to look forward to in April alone. Seven of them are big musicals that could conceivably run for years if they are successful. The brutal fact is they won’t all survive, so opportunities will be created for other shows that are in preparation and circling Broadway waiting for a home.

The commercial theatre is as much about real estate as about product. Happily, there seems to be a surfeit of the latter, but that has created a squeeze on the former. Producers are having to be creative about the choices they make.

The London Palladium has been taken off the market for open-ended bookings, as it now plans to bookend the year with pantomime, following the successful revival of the genre there last Christmas. Producer Jamie Hendry has booked his new musical version of The Wind in the Willows for a limited summer run at the Palladium, along the lines of the model for plays designed to recoup in an officially prescribed run.

This scenario may create more urgency in audiences, who know they can’t wait around if they want to see something, but have to go during the announced dates. Likewise, it concentrates the attentions of the producer and marketers, who know they need to get their audiences in fast. But once it has had the benefit of a West End run (and been reviewed there), a title such as The Wind in the Willows could easily become a successful touring property, and return to London whenever an opportunity arises.

We have already seen signs of this kind of drop-in West End model, most notably with An Inspector Calls and 1984, which have both popped up again whenever there’s a vacant theatre. In this incarnation, West End venues can become glorified versions of Wimbledon, Bromley and Milton Keynes (for musicals) or Richmond and Brighton (for plays) – simply as extra dates in the touring schedule.

Perhaps the answer is to build or create new theatres. The King’s Cross Theatre, a tented complex of three ready-made theatres, has proved that a resourceful producer doesn’t need to be beholden to the existing infrastructure but can create his or her own: using their own central London venues, producers have found freedom beyond traditional West End houses. The former duo from the National – the two Nicks, Hytner and Starr – are also building extra capacity by creating a 923-seat theatre, which opens beside Tower Bridge later this year.

This project will help alleviate the current problem with the West End in which a producer is not in control of the destiny of a show, which Tim Firth identified in a recent interview for The Stage. “No matter how lovely your aeroplane is, if the airport ain’t gonna let you land, you can’t,” Firth said. “The West End is controlled by four or five people in terms of where you can land your plane.”

So perhaps we simply need to build more runways. We are woefully short of transfer houses for regional shows from thrust-stage environments – a problem that Cameron Mackintosh’s refurbishment of the Ambassadors will seek to address.

Nica Burns’ plans for a replacement for the Astoria, knocked down to accommodate Crossrail, will also help to expand the range of available houses for runs of plays.

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