Magazine article The Spectator

Is It Curtains for the Theatre?

Magazine article The Spectator

Is It Curtains for the Theatre?

Article excerpt

WHEN I first told my friends I'd agreed to become a theatre critic exactly a year ago, I was a little taken aback by their reaction: `You did what? Are you mad?' Clearly, within my peer group, going to the theatre is something you're press-ganged into doing by your parents, not something that anyone in their right mind would actually do on their own. It was as if I'd announced to a group of American college students in the 1960s that I'd volunteered to serve in Vietnam.

Contrast this with the situation 50 years ago when the weekly dispatches of Kenneth Tynan and Harold Hobson were considered essential reading for anyone interested in tracking the zeitgeist. Even as recently as the 1970s, no intelligent young man could afford to ignore the theatre if he wanted to impress his pretty dinner-party companions. Somehow, though, over the past quarter of a century, the intellectual glamour has drained out of the West End. Shaftesbury Avenue is no longer thought to be where the real, modern action is. The men and women of the stage, once feted as the epitome of urban sophistication, are now dismissed as 'luvvies'. They have about as much sex appeal as teachers.

The statistics bear this out. While overall theatre attendance in Britain has recovered after the dip caused by 11 September, young people today are much less likely to go to the theatre than any other age-group. According to a recent report by the Arts Council of England, only 23 per cent of 25- to 34-yearolds attended a `play or drama' in 2001. The figures aren't much better for 35- to 44-year olds. It's not until you get to the next agebracket - 45- to 54-year-olds - that attendance really begins to increase. These days, it seems, going to the theatre is predominantly a middle-aged pursuit.

This is a problem. Who will replace the current generation of theatre-goers when they shuffle off their mortal coils? Unless something is done, the long-term prognosis for British theatre isn't good. In the past 25 years, Moscow, Berlin and Paris have all lost their pre-eminence as centres of dramatic excellence. Who's to say that London isn't next? This isn't simply a problem for people in the profession. The impact on the London tourist trade would be catastrophic.

One possible solution, currently being pursued at the National, is to reduce the price of admission. When the National Theatre first opened its doors in 1964, the most expensive tickets cost the equivalent of 17; today, they're 33. Trevor Nunn, the outgoing artistic director, tried to remedy this by creating a new, inexpensive space called the Lyttelton Loft, while Nicholas Hytner, the incoming artistic director, is hoping to convert the Olivier into a 10-a-seat venue, at least for a few months. But these measures are unlikely to make much of a difference if the fare on offer isn't any good. Young people may come once if tickets are more affordable, but they'll return only if they have a good time. As a critic, I'm often unable to persuade any of my friends to come with me to press nights even though the tickets I'm offering them are completely free. The most common excuse is that the last time they ventured into the theatre they had such an awful experience they vowed never to set foot in the West End again. I might as well be asking them to accompany me to Nord-Orst at the Meridian theatre in Moscow.

So what kinds of plays are likely to appeal to my peer group? Within the theatrical community, the general consensus is that what's needed is a John Osborne or an Arnold Wesker, an Angry Young Man who's going to light a fire under the Establishment. Ask any broadsheet critic and they'll tell you that the West End has become too 'safe' and `middle-class', much like it was in the 1950s. Thus Rhoda Koenig, writing recently in the Independent, made a heartfelt plea for more overtly political plays, ideally ones attacking Margaret Thatcher: `Why are the playwrights still silent about a woman whose government committed the greatest theft of public property since the Enclosure Acts and made "sound financial management" a synonym for vicious greed? …

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