Mark Shenton: The two Nicks, be warned – commercial theatre isn’t so easy

Nick Starr and Nicholas Hytner. Photo: Helen Maybanks Nick Starr and Nicholas Hytner. Photo: Helen Maybanks
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“This is a commercial venture, but one with a mission,” write Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr in the programme for Young Marx, the inaugural production at their new Bridge Theatre.

That mission is partly about changing the geographical reach of the West End but also being able to redefine the physical space in which they make their shows. As Hytner told The Stage recently: “The restriction of West End houses means you are always going to have to bend to the discipline [architect] Frank Matcham imposes on you… Some are masterpieces, but right from the beginning we wanted more flexibility.”

The next production at the Bridge, Julius Caesar, running from January 20, will see the space reconfigured for partly promenade style, with 250 standing tickets sold for each show.

A key part of the theatre’s operation is that instead of paying the piper as a commercial theatre producer, the Nicks can play the tunes themselves. They are their own landlords, and instead of having to do deals with existing theatre owners, the entire building is under their own control. And that extends to the unmistakable smell of fresh baking that permeates the foyers, thanks to the sale of warm madeleines.

It has been widely claimed that this is the first commercial theatre of its size to be built in London in the last 80 years, but it seems to me that the New London – which opened in 1973 and has 960 seats, almost exactly the same number as the Bridge – was built more recently than those eight decades ago.

I recently queried this with Starr, who replied that the Bridge is the first theatre of scale to be added to the commercial stock of Theatreland since the 1937 opening of the Prince of Wales. The New London was actually a replacement theatre on the same site of the Matcham-designed Winter Garden Theatre that stood there until 1965.

But that would be like discounting the all-new Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury as a new venue since it stands on the same site as the former cinema building it replaced in 2011. Or claiming that Shakespeare’s Globe is an old theatre, since it is a recreation of the original Globe that was demolished in 1644 but reopened in a replica building some three and a half centuries later.

Hytner has daringly opened a new theatre with a new play – albeit one that reunites him with many talents he has worked with before, including writers Richard Bean (One Man, Two Guvnors) and Clive Coleman (with whom Bean co-wrote the Hytner-directed National Theatre show Great Britain), a design team that includes set and costume designer Mark Thompson, composer Grant Olding and star actors Rory Kinnear (as Marx) and Oliver Chris (as Engels).

Together they’ve produced a fun-enough farce with darker political undercurrents. But a show that might have pleasured an NT audience may be a harder sell at commercial prices stretching to premiums of £90 each (the prices do admittedly start at a much more affordable £15).

A new theatre needs time to find an audience, and for an audience to find it; signage in the area is not very encouraging. Only its first three shows have been announced – as well as Julius Caesar, there will also be a new play by Barney Norris called Nightfall next April.

By contrast, when Michael Grandage launched his own company in the West End in 2012, he was able to announce a full slate of five shows for a 15-month season at the Noel Coward, with stars that included Simon Russell Beale, Judi Dench, Ben Whishaw, Daniel Radcliffe, Sheridan Smith and Jude Law. Immediately there was a sense of identity.

Other directors, including Marianne Elliott and Dominic Dromgoole, are trying to establish their own models for working in the West End. Much of the Nicks’ careers, and that of Elliott, have been spent in subsidised theatre, while Dromgoole’s Shakespeare’s Globe operated like one. Although removing the buffer of subsidy could spark a renewed sense of purpose, direction and identity, all of them are now entirely dependent on what happens at the box office.

That may lead to some rude awakenings. It may also require the rest of the West End to up its game. That can only be a good thing. I wish all those moving into commercial theatre every success, but also fear it may not be as easy as it might have looked from the comforting position of an office in the heart of a subsidised theatre.