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Richard Jordan: To protect theatre’s future, we mustn’t rely on bankable stars

David Tennant in Don Juan in Soho at Wyndham's Theatre. Photo: Helen Maybanks
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Only a small handful of actors are critic proof.

These are the performers who can be cast in almost any production and sell tickets even in the face of a lukewarm critical reception. It is their bankability that makes them so highly sought after. And indeed, the reason they are so bankable is their ability to pull in large box-office advances before any reviews have been filed.

Ian McKellen and Judi Dench have, over many years, been consistently bankable theatre stars. On Broadway, Nathan Lane and Audra McDonald lead the way, while in recent years Imelda Staunton and Mark Rylance have joined this elite group. Now with the West End revival of Moliere/Patrick Marber’s Don Juan in Soho, which ended its sell-out West End run last Saturday, David Tennant has confirmed his place among them.

The play had mixed reviews (though Tennant’s performance was praised). But the reviews didn’t matter. The audience booked and kept on coming.

Don Juan in Soho tells us a lot about the changing face of the West End. But it would be wrong to assume that it sets a new producing blueprint. At a time when we should be looking to draw the ‘Netflix’ generation, blindly chasing star power over depth is a risky strategy; Marber’s Moliere adaptation is more E4 than Netflix.

Theatre’s challenge to attract the Netflix audience was the focus of a recent panel debate at the launch of The Student Guide to Playwriting, a new book. Panel member and Bush Theatre associate dramaturg Stewart Pringle highlighted the need for “work to push us outside of our comfort zone”.

In 1993, Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing premiered at the Bush before transferring to the Duke of York’s Theatre for an extended run. Would that happen today? When Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced ran at the Bush to rave reviews in 2014, it failed to transfer. Perhaps it would have had a better chance if it had been cast with Game of Thrones stars?

That trend affirms that for many audience members, the critics’ opinions are no longer relevant. If a show has enough bankability in its cast, it may even be better for the producer not to invite critics. Why risk negative press when advance sales are already strong?

I have written previously about my belief in the importance of professional theatre criticism, but I wonder how long it will be until there are two tiers of shows: those without star power needing notices to sell tickets, and the others riding roughshod over the good name of British theatre. It is just a matter of time before we see quotes on the canopies from audience members’ social media feeds.

Today’s rapidly moving news agenda means the media are unlikely to return to a production after it has opened. Combined with star-led limited runs, that will accelerate the emerging pattern of shows that fly or fail, removing the middle ground where a production could grow an audience organically or tick over week-to-week at the box office. That means to thrive will take extra marketing spend, a luxury available only to big-budget musicals and productions with large surpluses.

We will always need bankable stars, but a healthy theatre ecosystem needs an element of discovery, too. Otherwise we will end up with a one-sided box office economy that could upset the long-term balance sheets of the sector in future.

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