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Mark Shenton: Like London’s airports, the West End needs more runways

Shows face the danger of running out of fuel if they don't find a theatre to transfer to fast enough. Photo: Shutterstock
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Football clubs have transfer windows – specific periods throughout the year when they can sign and sell players in and out of their playing staff. In the theatre, though, the ‘transfer window’ for productions from regional or fringe venues to the West End is seemingly limitless; there is no deadline by which it has to be achieved, though speed can be of the essence if a production wants to maintain the momentum it has built up from initial reviews and word of mouth.

But such is the pressure nowadays on the ‘real estate’ of the West End – namely the low availability of theatres to rent – that shows are routinely circling like planes over Heathrow, waiting for a spot to land. Most producers now have to play a longer game, knowing that it might take a while to find an accommodating runway. The danger is that some might run out of fuel if they don’t land in a hurry.

Right now several shows are coming into land, some of which have been waiting longer than others. The Jungle, which premiered at the Young Vic last December, arrives in a reconfigured Playhouse Theatre from tomorrow (June 16), before its official opening on July 5, and a revival of Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner’s musical Caroline, or Change, which was first staged at Chichester’s Minerva in May 2017 and then played a London season at Hampstead Theatre in March, will now transfer to the Playhouse from November 20.

The Royal Shakespeare Company has two shows heading to the West End imminently (in addition to its regular residency at the Barbican): Gregory Doran’s two-parter Imperium, which premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon last December, has just begun performances at the Gielgud, prior to its official opening on June 30; and Angus Jackson’s production of Don Quixote, which premiered at the Swan Theatre in Stratford in March 2016, is being revived for a West End transfer to the Garrick from October 27, before its official opening on November 8. While Imperium’s transfer is relatively fast, Don Quixote is moving more than two years since its Stratford premiere; presumably the stars had to align (literally) to make it possible to reunite David Threlfall and Rufus Hound in the leading roles.

Read our interview with Imperium star Richard McCabe

As ever, it shows the dependence of the West End economy on a thriving subsidised and regional theatre circuit; but the logjam on available theatres is creating its own tensions (and additional costs) for producers seeking to make those transfers. For example, the recent transfer of Nina Raine’s Consent from the National (where it premiered over a year ago, in April 2017) to the Pinter, where it is running now, meant that it had to be almost entirely recast.  Long Day’s Journey into Night – premiered at Bristol Old Vic in 2016 – recast both the sons when it moved to Wyndham’s 20 months later, though it held on to Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville.

The lack of availability of West End theatres is a nice problem for theatre owners to have – it means they hold all the power

Other shows, such as Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, which announced its transfer to the Gielgud even before it opened at the Royal Court, were obviously better able to time their move and maintain their original cast by making a direct transfer.

The lack of availability of West End theatres is a nice problem for West End theatre owners to have – it means they hold all the power and can set the terms. No wonder that Nick Hytner and Nick Starr have created their own model a of building their own spaces with the Bridge (and now a new proposed site at King’s Cross to follow), where they are not beholden to the existing infrastructures of the West End. Likewise, producers Tristan Baker and Oliver Royds are establishing the new Troubadour Theatres brand, first at Wembley Park but with plans to roll it out to other sites around London.

These could not only seriously challenge the power structures of the West End, but also make transferring shows a lot easier in the future.