Magazine article The Spectator

West End Wobbles

Magazine article The Spectator

West End Wobbles

Article excerpt

As yet another Edinburgh Festival (and this at four weeks the longest yet) grinds into action, with the usual overnight sensations which will as always make their way south looking distinctly hung over in about October, those of us left behind in an unusually steam-heated West End may perhaps be forgiven for considering the current state of our London theatres.

Note that plural, for we are not talking art or culture here; we are talking land values and real estate, and specifically the transfer problem at a time when there are increasingly loud rumours that there is a new buyer in the offing for the Playhouse, and a time when many of the aforementioned Edinburgh 1998 shows will soon be looking in vain for a central London home.

By general reckoning, this has been an unusually good summer for the West End, with many more straight plays surviving there than before, many more youthful theatregoers and a general feeling that we are once again going upmarket towards serious new drama and away from quite so many brain-dead musical revivals of one kind or another.

So far, so good; but although the Old Vic appears to have been saved from a threatened takeover by lapdancers, there is still no secure word that its only natural and obvious tenant, Peter Hall, will be able to afford to take his company back there from the cavernous Piccadilly.

This is often reckoned an 'unlucky' theatre, as indeed was the New London, so unlucky that when on the first night of Cats some 15 years ago there was a bomb scare many of my critical colleagues refused to leave, on the grounds that the theatre had never yet had a hit.

Well, Cats has certainly changed all that, but there are still several other supposedly unlucky playhouses and I have to warn potential buyers that the Playhouse has always proved one of them. I know whereof I speak: my grandmother Gladys Cooper was one of its first managers back in the 1920s, and survived only so long as Somerset Maugham was willing to write her a new play every year. Since then, the theatre has enjoyed such varied owners as BBC Radio, Ray Cooney and Jeffrey Archer, but none can be said to have made a fortune there, though Archer was handsome enough to spend one on a major refit about ten years ago.

Just why the Playhouse should always have proved so problematic, when it is on the Embankment, has excellent parking and a good in-house restaurant, has never been entirely clear, though it is by no means alone. The Whitehall, just on the wrong side of Trafalgar Square, has seldom thrived since Lord Rix last dropped his trousers there in farce 30 years ago, and is now largely given over to television chatshows; then again the Shaftesbury can often prove a nightmare to programme, and the Royalty has disappeared forever into the London School of Economics.

Even the landmark buildings are not always so secure; who now, in the rubble of Covent Garden and Sadler's Wells and the Royal Court, is really confident of the phoenix rising from the ashes? And talking of the Phoenix that too was going through a bad time until Bill Kenwright put Blood Brothers in there a decade ago.

The theatres most in demand are, now and forever, those on Shaftesbury Avenue and St Martin's Lane, or those that can accommodate huge musicals, be they the Palladium or Drury Lane; even if Sir Cameron Mackintosh should ever flag, there will always be Broadway and even Hollywood blockbusters waiting to get in there -- indeed, the queue is already so long that many other producers have lately had to trek out to Labbat's Apollo in Hammersmith in search of a big-band base. …

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