Jonathan Church’s decision to go in-house at Trafalgar Entertainment makes a lot of sense for both parties.
At Trafalgar, founders Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire are trying to replicate the model they built so successfully at Ambassador Theatre Group. One key factor in the global growth of ATG was the commercial and artistic success of its subsidiary Sonia Friedman Productions. Friedman was working in-house at ATG when she created her semi-independent, self-titled company in 2002. Since then, it has become the pre-eminent producing force in the West End.
Church has had a rough time since leaving Chichester Festival Theatre, which was completely transformed for the better under his artistic directorship. Since he left in 2016, he has had to face the upheaval of an aborted nine-month tenure at Sydney Theatre Company and, more recently, the traumatic experience of having to cancel a planned tour of To Kill a Mockingbird late in the day after a rights clash with Broadway producer Scott Rudin.
Now, Jonathan Church Productions, launched in 2015 as a partnership with Delfont Mackintosh Theatres, will also eventually come to an end. Instead, a similar company – with a slightly different name – will be reborn under the wing of Trafalgar Entertainment and its financial backer Barings.
Both Church and Trafalgar will be looking for stability. One would have thought they will both feel confident of that because of Panter and Squire’s proven track record overseeing a similar operation at ATG. Indeed, in many ways, this arrangement mirrors the relationship that Panter and Squire had with Friedman. But in one key way it does not, at least not yet. While it’s hard to remember now, SFP was not always the hit-machine it is today. The early days were marked by as many downs as ups. It was kept buoyant by the fact that it was operating under the aegis of the UK’s largest theatre operator.
It worked for both parties. For ATG, it meant it could keep its theatres open with quality product, even if it wasn’t always breaking box office records. For Friedman, it meant that she had financial security and a head start on securing a West End producer’s most precious asset: somewhere to stage their production.
Trafalgar can certainly offer Church financial security but, as things stand, it operates only two spaces at Trafalgar Studios. That could change – indeed, as I was saying last week, it could change quite quickly – but until it does, one of the key ingredients of the ‘vertically integrated’ model pioneered by Panter and Squire at ATG will be missing: theatres.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his weekly column at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith