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Andrzej Lukowski: Have London’s venues left middlebrow plays without a home?

Richard Griffiths in The History Boys at the National Theatre in 2004. Such a play would seem ‘like a throwback’ if staged today, says Andrzej Lukowski. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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In 2007, Dominic Cooke said he intended to stage ‘middle-class dramas’ at London’s Royal Court – but where is that fare now? Andrzej Lukowski considers the strange death of middle-of-the-road theatre in the capital

Last year, I interviewed Sean Holmes, the outgoing director of Lyric Hammersmith, and an observation he made really stuck with me. For much of his tenure, he felt the Lyric was “the opposition”. That is to say the west London theatre staged plays its peers wouldn’t, in a style they wouldn’t. It culminated in the Secret Theatre project, which Holmes launched with a manifesto that more or less demanded the entire British theatre establishment step outside for a fight.

But, he said, by the end the Lyric was no longer the opposition – that had drained away. When it reopened after a lengthy building upgrade, its programming hadn’t really changed, but its peers had. The past 10 years have seen the strange death of middle-of-the-road theatre, in London at least.

Back in 2007, Dominic Cooke infamously announced that under him London’s Royal Court would stage more plays directly addressing its middle-class audience. It’s debatable what this really meant and how seriously we should have taken it. But it served as something close to a manifesto for the times.

The Court staged a lot of formally conventional comedies and dramas about middle-class people. So did Josie Rourke’s Bush Theatre. So did Michael Attenborough’s Almeida. Nicholas Hytner’s National was defined by an endless stream of middlebrow smashes (War Horse, The History Boys, One Man, Two Guvnors). Michael Grandage’s Donmar heaved with exquisitely tasteful, incredibly hard-to-book celebrity revivals.

James Corden and Oliver Chris in One Man, Two Guvnors at the Lyttelton, National Theatre in 2018. Photo: Tristram Kenton

This was never the whole story with any of these places, and this is not a judgement about the quality of the work. The History Boys was great. But it was also a formally conventional play about an all-boys grammar school. It would probably just about squeak on to the National’s repertoire today. But it would seem like a throwback.

The most obvious harbinger of change was Vicky Featherstone taking over at the Royal Court in 2013. The appointment had probably more continuity with Cooke than people might allow, but it marked the end of Cooke’s middle-class manifesto.

Maybe a subtler sign of a deep shift was Paul Miller assuming leadership of the Orange Tree in 2014. The venerable Richmond venue was quite probably the chintziest theatre in the country – possibly the world – and had a loyal audience for it. Miller still gives that audience a few shows a year – indeed, the fact he tends to direct the Shaw and Rattigan revivals himself  suggests that’s where his heart lies.

But in his first season he also programmed Alistair McDowall’s brain-melting Pomona, and has steadily kept up the agenda-setting with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon and Zoe Cooper’s recent Out of Water. If the Orange Tree could go hipster, where couldn’t?

Paul Miller: ‘Theatre needs constant infusions of new blood’

Rupert Goold has turned the Almeida into a powerhouse by embracing a more European style of work. Rufus Norris’ National, while a broad church, has clearly moved a certain way, bringing Katie Mitchell back into the fold and staging its first Sarah Kane revival.

The Donmar, Theatre Royal Stratford East and indeed the Lyric Hammersmith, while not indistinguishable, have programmes likely to appeal to similar audiences. David Greig appears regularly, Roy Alexander Weise is directing a lot of work and there are a lot of cool American plays by writers such as Jacobs-Jenkins and Sarah DeLappe.

The Old Vic has hoovered up the last generation of hip Brit playwrights such as Lucy Prebble and Duncan Macmillan. The Bush has become an increasingly purposeful bastion for urgent new work and important lost gems by black, Asian and minority ethnic writers and directors – there were a few dinner-party plays at the start of Madani Younis’ tenure, but fewer as it wore on, and Lynette Linton’s just-announced debut season there is in some ways the most daring in all London, featuring a walloping six plays by first-time writers.

Lynette Linton: ‘This is what I always wanted, it’s all I have ever wanted’

The only theatre to remain broadly unchanged in outlook is the Young Vic. Kwame Kwei-Armah has put his own spin on the programming but has not heavily tweaked his predecessor David Lan’s formula of progressive director-led takes on the classics with the most exciting American new writing. Indeed, that formula essentially laid down a blueprint for much of the present-day scene.

This is not to say that everyone has leapt into a churning avant-garde abyss, or that all these theatres played it 100% safe a decade ago. But broadly speaking, the work has changed and moved away from well-crafted, old-fashioned dramas and comedies about the travails of middle-class white people.

How did this happen? It’s difficult to quantify it exactly, and it probably comes down to a number of reasons. Generational shifts in taste is a massive factor, in terms of directors, artistic directors and audiences.

It’s also likely that years of largely unfulfilled aspirational rhetoric about diversifying the audience are now beginning to catch up with theatres that find they now need to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. This feels especially apparent with regards to getting younger people through the door.

‘Broadly speaking, venues have moved away from plays about white, middle-class people’

And let’s not forget that, despite ongoing budget cuts,  most of these theatres are reasonably financially secure and not scrabbling for hits. This is a London-centric view, though, in part because subsidised theatres outside the capital don’t always conform to London trends for reasons that are probably too complicated to get into here.

Does this disenfranchise people who enjoy a Well Made Play About Relatable Problems? It’s an interesting question. I have no insight into anybody’s box-office takings, but one theatre I haven’t mention is Hampstead. It was unabashedly old-fashioned in its programming, and always seemed to do well enough under Edward Hall. New director Roxana Silbert is yet to announce her first season; but if she goes along with London trends, it feels as if a certain sort of play will be left without an obvious London home.

Still, I don’t think we need to worry about them just yet. Shifts are relative, and go only so far – a gentle drift to the left does not mean this work vanishes; many of these theatres are probably still less radical than they were in the 1970s and 1980s. It will be intriguing to see whether there is any sort of backlash or move to the right – after all, there is now an opening for the role of the official opposition.

Andrzej Lukowski is theatre editor at Time Out London and a regular contributor to The Stage. Read more of his articles at thestage.co.uk/author/andrzej-lukowski

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