What is the future of the West End? This was the question that concluded the first Heart of the West End conference, completing a chronological arc from the birth of Theatreland, through its history and up to its present state over two days of lectures and panel talks. The final round table discussion of the conference was opened by chair Karen Fricker, Variety critic and lecturer at Royal Holloway, who compared Time Out’s recent enthusiastic bill of health for London’s theatre with Mark Shenton’s concerns about the West End box office in his blog for The Stage. So which paints the true picture of London’s commercial theatre district?
The answer that emerged from the conference is a little of both. As Guardian theatre critic Lyn Gardner put it, the West End “has always been in crisis and it has always been in rude health”. Throughout its long history, the West End has been threatened again and again by destruction, yet it has continued to survive and arguably to thrive. The Heart of the West End, organised by Royal Holloway, University of London in partnership with the Victoria & Albert Museum and Theatre Royal Haymarket, was a conference that recognised this unique paradox, celebrating the rich heritage of Theatreland at the same time as challenging our understanding of the West End.
It was argued that for the West End to remain successful it must look to both past and future, a dual gaze that was reflected in the conference programme. Sunday’s talks and panel sessions explored some of the issues and research topics from the history of the West End, including the economics of London’s early theatres, the theatre managers who transformed the West End into what it is today, the introduction of electric lighting to Theatreland and the rise and demise of the West End pantomime. A talk from guest speaker John Earl, meanwhile, offered a whistlestop tour through the formation of the West End as we know it now and the various waves of theatre building.
Some themes emerged as evergreen, stretching from historical lectures into discussions of the state of the West End today. RHUL Professor Jacky Bratton’s keynote address, for example, highlighted the historically neglected role of female theatre managers, initiating a focus on gender that remained in the background throughout. Women continue to be underrepresented in certain sectors of the theatre industry, prompting Jack Bradley of Sonia Friedman Productions to express a wish to have more women running the theatres of today. There was also an emphasis on the relationship between West End theatre and charity, which has continued from the support for the Actors’ Orphanage Fund of the nineteenth century right up to the current Masterclass scheme.
The most urgent aspect of the discussions, however, was the concluding round table debate on Monday afternoon, which asked where the West End is currently heading and what we need to do in order to protect and improve it for future generations. Picking up some of the issues discussed in the panel session on Masterclass, one of the stumbling blocks that arose was how to bring younger audiences into the theatre. Ticket pricing was inevitably cited as a reason for keeping young people out of the theatre, but the panel pointed out that teenagers do not consider price a deal-breaker when booking to see their favourite music artists, which shifts blame onto the way in which West End theatre is marketed and perceived.
Ticket prices were, unsurprisingly, a big issue. One calculation estimated an average night out in the West End for one couple, including tickets, travel, food and drink, at a prohibitively expensive £374. Playwright Richard Bean also levelled criticism at ticket touts, who are inflating West End ticket prices even higher and making it almost impossible for the average person to enjoy a night at the theatre. On the other hand, however, it was questioned whether heavy discounting is damaging shows by implying poor ticket sales. Interestingly, the Society of London Theatre’s chief executive Julian Bird noted that the biggest single ticket trend is that theatregoers are leaving it later and later to book, another factor that is driving the growth of discounts.
The main focus that eventually developed from the discussion and the questions that followed was the need to find a new model for presenting work in West End theatres. While record-breaking box office sales point to a healthy industry, it was noted that the majority of productions currently running in the West End have transferred from elsewhere – often from subsidised theatres. As explained by the panel, it is now rare for West End theatres to directly commission playwrights to write new plays, with producers instead ‘cherry picking’ the best of the subsidised sector. It is a model that, as the current Theatre Royal Haymarket production of One Man Two Guvnors demonstrates, is working, but it has in turn created an absence of new writing on the West End.
Jack Bradley (of Sonia Friedman Productions and formerly the National Theatre) suggested that instead the commercial sector might embrace a hitherto unexplored ‘third way’, in which West End theatres work with their subsidised counterparts rather than letting Arts Council funded theatres do all the heavy lifting. This could involve commercial producers commissioning and investing in a new play that would then receive a trial run in a subsidised theatre before making the move to the West End, bridging the gap between the two. Lyn Gardner also stressed the importance of collaboration to the future of all theatre, commercial or otherwise, describing it as “all part and parcel of a very complicated theatre ecology”.
Another essential component of a model for the West End theatre of the future is the space in which the art form takes place. The link between building and performance was one that pervaded the entire conference and was particularly appropriate given the beautiful setting of the Theatre Royal Haymarket, but large theatres of the kind that dominate the West End are not necessarily the best place for nurturing new work, possibly acting as a contributing factor to the lack of new plays being commissioned by these theatres. Money was a factor that kept inescapably recurring, with the simple economics of running a West End theatre making risks difficult to take.
Geoffrey Marsh of the V&A compared the London model with Broadway, which is fed by small to medium sized off-Broadway theatres – a system that we arguably lack here, where fringe theatres are often tiny and far away from the West End. There was the argument that we need our own equivalent of Off-Broadway, with a happy, nurturing medium between intimate pub venues and vast auditoriums. As mentioned at the conference, however, it will be interesting to observe the impact of the new St James Theatre complex that will open its doors later this year and the eventual replacement for the Astoria, both of which promise to offer smaller spaces in the heart of Theatreland.
While we may not know quite what direction in which the West End and indeed theatre as a whole is moving, forward-looking discussions such as these remain important. Producer Marc Sinden recalled an observation that theatre has one foot in the past and one in the present, but is not far-sighted enough to look to the future. What the Heart of the West End made clear, and what it will hopefully expand upon in future conferences, is that it is vital for the continuing survival of the West End that it does gaze forwards as well as backwards.
Reporter: Catherine Love
Photography: Dean O’Brien