Magazine article The Spectator

A Year of Trial and Error

Magazine article The Spectator

A Year of Trial and Error

Article excerpt

So how was it for you? I mean apart from the foot-and-mouth, and the events of 11 September, and the fear of a recession, and everything else that brought the London theatre to as near a standstill as I can recall in this last decade or two. And apart from the fact that virtually every major theatre company in London, and many beyond, is ending the year with at least the announcement of a new director for the new year. And apart from the fact that record numbers of people, not only Americans, have decided that it is wiser just to stay home than fight their way through the central-city sleaze that everyone is always just about to do something about. The surprise is therefore not how good or how bad shows have been this last year (and as usual there have been a good many of both), but that they have been there at all. The fabulous invalid is now on life-support, nearest and dearest are hovering around the bedside, and as Arthur Miller once said of Broadway, it is still possible in the West End to make a killing, but not a living.

Certain disasters could perhaps have been foretold: it was surely obvious, and not just with hindsight, that the fans of our revered diarist Joan Collins are mainly the Hello!-reading casuals unlikely to venture to the Old Vic on a dark night for 30 to see a remarkable old bat who is on their breakfast television most mornings for free. On the other hand, would we have forecast in 2001 a couple of major Noel Coward hits (Private Lives and Star Quality) and a rare but unmissable revival of his Semi-Monde? Only perhaps if we recalled that the great hit of the second world war, as the bombs were falling and millions were losing loved ones, was a farce of his entirely about sudden death called Blithe Spirit. Other wartime rules that applied to 1945 did not, however, hold good for the Taleban: farces like Feelgood and Caught in the Net did not find, as in the war, whole new audiences of escapists, while mindless but feelgood musicals (Peggy Sue Got Married and Song of Singapore, for example) similarly failed to pick up during the hostilities. As William Goldman famously said of Hollywood movie-making, `nobody knows anything'; some of this year's hits have been as surprising, at least to me, as some of the flops, and the most we can say is that it was a year of trial and error, one which gave very few pointers to the way ahead that we didn't already have on our maps.

It is still ludicrously, impossibly expensive to transfer a show, even a hit show, from the fringe to the West End when one small display ad in one Sunday paper can still cost you more than an entire month-long run in a pub theatre. It is still dodgy to import a Hollywood star: for every one who makes it on Shaftesbury Avenue, or more usually in the relative safety of the fringe, another goes home in tears, always assuming they haven't by now been deterred from flying the Atlantic in either direction. Nothing that worked last year is in any way guaranteed to work next, and there will, I fear, be a bloodbath in late January when the shows that have been holding on by their fingernails finally have to admit defeat.

So what, flicking through my first-night diary, would I have you recall? Peter Bowles, somewhat wasted in the current Royal Family but an unforgettable Beau Brummell in a new play by Ron Hutchinson, which thrived and thrilled on the road but unaccountably failed in town; Derek Jacobi as a Vatican runner being pursued by Mafia helicopters in Hugh Whitemore's hilariously preposterous God Only Knows, one of the truly great bad plays of our time; Simon Russell Beale, an unusually chubby and endearing Hamlet and then, also for John Caird, Felix in the tailor-made Humble Boy, far and away the best new play of the year and one happily now about to open in the West End; a perfectly adequate but not drastically exciting My Fair Lady, which is now where it always should have been, at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, despite the fact that (at the National) it made more news when its star Martine McCutcheon failed to appear than when she did graciously turn up at the stage door. …

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