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Mark Shenton’s week: Is the out-of-town try out making a comeback?

Ria Jones in Sunset Boulevard. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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The tradition of the out-of-town try-out has been a tried and tested route for Broadway shows – developing them away from the excessive scrutiny of Broadway’s prying eyes (though these days, thanks to Twitter and the internet, there are eyes everywhere). Still, most of this season’s slate of new musicals will have had a life before they’ve reached Broadway, from Japan (Prince of Broadway) to Chelsea (The Band’s Visit, which tried out at the Atlantic Theatre Off-Broadway), Denver (Disney’s Frozen), Chicago (Spongebob Squarepants), Washington DC (Mean Girls) and La Jolla (Escape to Margaritaville).

We don’t have exactly the same network of established try-out houses in the UK, though theatres like Plymouth’s Theatre Royal, Leicester’s Curve and Birmingham Rep sometimes co-produce with London companies and managements to launch UK tours and the occasional West End or off-West End run (like this week’s arrival at the Park of Birmingham Rep’s What Shadows).

Chichester Festival Theatre and Sheffield’s Crucible have also, of course, regularly launched in-house shows that have gone on to have a further life. London producer and theaterowner Nica Burns attended Sheffield’s Everybody’s Talking About Jamie on the last day of its run – she is now taking it to the Apollo Theatre next month. As she has described it: “Everybody seemed to be talking about the show so I went to see the final matinee in Sheffield with no expectations. I came out of the auditorium singing the tunes having laughed, cried, laughed again and dancing with happiness. It’s a musical for everybody. I found the director, grabbed him, offered him to let me take it to London and offered him a theatre. It had to come to the West End.”

So that was a regional theatre leading and a West End producer following. But some West End producers lead with the regions: Michael Harrison’s new West End production of Young Frankenstein (which began previews at the Garrick last week ahead its opening on October 10) tried out at the producer’s ‘home’ theatre of Newcastle Theatre Royal this summer. Last week, Harrison and regular producing partner David Ian also launched a new touring production of Sunset Boulevard at Leicester’s Curve that brings West End production values to the road. It wouldn’t surprise me if the show ends up back in the West End – Sunset Boulevard is proving to be one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most popular titles and has already had three separate runs in London – the original in 1993, a revival that originated at Newbury’s Watermill in 2008, and the limited run last year at the London Coliseum, which subsequently transferred to Broadway.

Read our interview with Sunset Boulevard star Ria Jones

Reducing my schedule

I’ve long spoken about trying to reduce my theatregoing schedule, which before my recent health scare had me seeing up to 12 shows a week.

If that hadn’t forced a reappraisal, nothing would; but recently some choices have been made for me. For instance, the fact that the Tom Hiddleston Hamlet didn’t invite critics (though we were invited to join the public lottery to buy tickets) meant I never got to see it. Nor the current Punchdrunk ‘experience’ Kabeiroi, an event for which a total of just 864 tickets were issued by ballot. As Alex Needham has put it in The Guardian: “This is theatre as luxury product.” The Guardian’s own review of it, he also explained, “was written by a “keyholder” – supporters of Punchdrunk who can pay from £30 to £5,000 a year; the top rate gets you dinner with the artistic team and ‘a personalised service … as you develop and nurture a close relationship with the company’. About 20% of tickets (85 pairs) went to people paying at least £250 a year.”

Needham also makes the good point: “Whether or not you buy the argument that a publicly funded organisation should be accountable to critics, shutting out reviewers takes Kabeiroi off the theatrical record, robbing the performers, playwrights and audiences of the future of the chance to find out what the work said about life in 2017. Critics may get a bad rap, but they are there to represent and serve the theatregoers who keep Punchdrunk in business. Putting obstacles in their path smacks of arrogance.”

Still, it saves me a night out (or in this case, six hours trudging the streets of London in search of the show). Scheduling conflicts mean that I can’t see everything anyway: I missed the National’s Jane Eyre on its first round and missed it again when it returned there last week.  I also failed to see Ivo van Hove’s latest double bill After the Rehearsal/Persona, which ran for just four nights at the Barbican last week. But there are some shows you don’t want to miss, and this week there are multiple clashes on Tuesday, which means I’ll be chasing my tail to accommodate them all: I’m going to be in Chichester for the press day of their new production of The Norman Conquests, and I’ll see James Graham’s Labour of Love the night before and Birmingham Rep’s transfer of What Shadows at the Park the night after, both of which also open on Tuesday.

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