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Mark Shenton: Commercial theatre is embracing risk and venturing into new areas

Ben Turner and Jonathan Nyati in The Jungle at the Playhouse Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Ben Turner and Jonathan Nyati in The Jungle at the Playhouse Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Commercial theatre occupies a strange world where art and business co-exist. Sometimes it’s a clash of cultures, as with Thriller Live, a live tribute band show masquerading as a musical that has occupied a prime piece of Shaftesbury Avenue real estate for a decade. That show plays next door to the significant achievements of the original British musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, about a gay teenager unashamedly asserting his identity.

On the next block up in the West End are the new production of Stephen Sondheim’s groundbreaking 1970 show Company, re-imagined for today, and Les Miserables, Theatreland’s longest-running musical.

Two of these shows began in the subsidised sector: Jamie at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre and Les Mis with the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican. But they’ve earned their place in the commercial heart of the West End by sheer demand – one that wasn’t guaranteed to be there but whose producers believed would be, and have been proved right.

That’s the hunch a theatre producer has to back. As Sonia Friedman, the most prolific and boldest producer in London, recently told the Financial Times: “The world I’ve chosen to work in, nobody really knows the answer as to why something does or doesn’t work. What keeps me going is the fact that I don’t know what the result is going to be, and I need to go through it in order to find out. I’m not a coward. I’m really excited by the unknown.”

She’s proving it by producing not one but two of the commercially riskiest shows in town, with consecutive transfers from the Young Vic. First came The Jungle (now at the Playhouse), which in the same interview she calls “a defining moment in my career”, adding: “I don’t think I could produce it in the West End now if I hadn’t had the 20 years of experience behind me. I’ve got to the place professionally where I can say, ‘Let’s do this’: convince the theatre owner, convince investors, convince artists to do it in that space. It’s a defining moment for me because if I can’t do that type of work alongside all the rest of it, I don’t want to do my job. I have to be able to tell those stories too.”

Friedman has followed it with The Inheritance, an epic two-parter about contemporary gay life and the legacy of Aids, which opened last Saturday at the Noel Coward. It speaks to a very specific constituency: when I saw it at the Young Vic in March, an older straight couple told me that watching it felt like they were in a foreign land. They were gripped nonetheless.

The Inheritance review at Young Vic, London – ‘ambitious, moving and compelling’

But, as with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, this alternately healing and harrowing play by Matthew Lopez provides a powerful life lesson for gay men about the importance of understanding our own pasts – and the vacuum that we face in our collective histories with all the people we lost far too early.

It can’t entirely fill in the gaps, but it can help us understand that there are so many missing links. Some of the links in that chain continue to be broken today: even if HIV is now largely treatable, we are still losing major talents from the theatre to Aids-related illnesses, like My Night With Reg author Kevin Elyot, who died in 2014, and the Broadway composer Michael Friedman who died last year, aged 41.

But, if there’s a renewed appetite for seeing work like The Inheritance that tells us of our missing past, there are still other rarely told stories that I’d love to see on commercial stages.

Given the number of American musicals making their way over here in the coming months – including the Broadway-bound Hadestown at the National Theatre, the return of Caroline, Or Change, and transfers for Come from Away, Waitress, On Your Feet! and Dear Evan Hansen – I’m loath to ask for more. But a really bold producer could offer us the UK premiere of Michael Friedman’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Using rock music, this show dramatises the life of the controversial seventh US president. And what’s happened to Fun Home, another Young Vic show that was hotly tipped for the West End? It would be a rare thing there, telling a lesbian coming-of-age story.

Commercial producers are usually characterised as following the money. But theatre should be about making art first. No wonder Sonia Friedman also said: “Nothing I do sets out to be commercial. I like to think of myself as an independent producer as opposed to a commercial producer.”

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