Mark Shenton’s Top of the Flops feature, investigating the causes of the West End’s spate of rapid play closures, touched a timely nerve.
First published last Monday (7 June 2004) - on the same day that Scamp, Sam Mendes’ new company announced the closure, just two weeks after opening, of its inaugural production, Fuddy Meers – the decimated state of theatreland became a hot story in the wider press.
And now we’re widening the debate on Whatsonstage.com. Shenton interviewed several of the producers behind some of the shows highlighted in the original article to find out their views on the current state of drama in the West End and what they’ve learned from recent failures.
As far as Rattle of a Simple Man goes, I think we made a mistake. That happens. We’ve all made mistakes in our time and will probably do so again. It was an error of judgement and we have paid heavily.
With Thoroughly Modern Millie, there just aren’t enough people coming in willing or able to pay the full price on a theatre ticket. Instead, we all have to undercut each other – it’s a ‘no reasonable offer refused’ time. If you’ve got a cheap show, you can probably do that. We started to cut our ticket prices, but the advance didn’t move. There aren’t enough tourists coming in.
Is there a future for commercial theatre in the West End? I wonder sometimes if there is. It’s too expensive to produce, and we don’t get any subsidies. Of course, occasionally you get fluke hits – I’ve made a career out of them! When you think what Buddy did around the world and the amount of money it took in its lifetime, it was phenomenal. So was Stones in His Pockets, a little play that has probably made, pound for pound, more than the rest. But I couldn’t raise the money for it – people thought I was certifiable!
I’ve got one big thing on the stocks to bring into the West End for Christmas – a big pantomime with a massive star, Lily Savage. If I can’t sell that, then I will definitely pack it in. As it is, I doubt I’d do another musical, and my wife won’t let me. It’s too much stress.
With Calico, there is no question that if it was done within the protection of the subsidised theatre and in a ‘branded’ theatre, audiences would have felt confident enough to see it. Because the West End isn’t branded, you start from the ground every time – and new work opens without being road-tested first. The other problem we had was that expectations were strangely higher because it was a new play opening directly into the West End.
You have to do a lot of press beforehand to start building up the advance – so what you end up doing is creating an energy around the piece that perhaps makes it sound like it’s a bigger event than it is, which the play then can’t live up to. If it had snuck in at the Cottesloe or Donmar, without the hype beforehand, it would have had a much stronger chance, because it might have surprised us. But it’s hard to have a surprise in the West End when so much advance work has to be done.
Whilst Calico did not work, in terms of the number of people who saw it each night, if it had been on at the Donmar, Almeida or Cottesloe, it would have been a sell-out there. We got well over 280 people a night – but because we were in a 650-seater theatre, that wasn’t enough.
We also have to re-think the whole thing about pricing. We have to charge what we absolutely have to do in order to raise the investment – because it is so expensive to put on a play these days, you’ve got to show investors how quickly they can make their money back. But we need to get the investors and theatre owners behind us and say that there’s a stronger chance of getting their money back if we look at each show and see what it can withstand.
With Guantanamo, all tickets are £20 – I know I can’t charge more than £20 a ticket. What works at the Tricycle doesn’t necessarily work in the West End. That’s a direct response to what’s going on. The National are doing their £10 season, and audiences will absolutely take a risk on ten quid, but they sure as heck are not going to take a risk on £35.
If you look at every single play that has failed to run, each has its own story of why it failed: some will be about audiences fearing the risk, some will be about plays not being good enough, some will be about being the wrong play in the wrong environment. It’s a very, very competitive environment here, and I know that in order to stand out in West End, you’ve got to have that unique selling point. It can be a hit transfer; it can be a star actor; it can be a title play with a great playwright. What it can’t be is just a good piece of theatre without anything around it that will sell it.
But then you can have all these theories, and then along comes something like Journey's End that debunks all of them. The very thing that you think you understand knocks you for six – but it’s also what makes you want to keep going. That’s why theatre is brilliant and awful all at the same time.
Maybe we have to give theatres an identity, like Howard Panter is doing at the Trafalgar Studios and I’m going to do again at the New Ambassadors. One way forward is to help our audiences to understand the work we’re doing by giving particular theatres a policy and identity, maybe even subscriptions.
Director of Scamp Film & Theatre, with Sam Mendes & Pippa Harris,
producers of Fuddy Meers
With Fuddy Meers, we thought judiciously of it as a project that was very much about being producers who were interested in new work, who wanted to find ways of sustaining new work in the West End for younger audiences, and who were interested in collaborating with others on bringing it here. It was a very carefully crafted project – we weren’t being slapdash. We carefully crafted the cast, which was genuinely about setting an agenda for transatlantic casting that wasn’t hung on star-casting, with four actors hand-picked from New York that we exchanged with British actors going to perform Jumpers there.
It wasn’t about pulling punches but about a sense of care. We picked on something deliberately small, hoping that we could perhaps introduce something that could be quite welcome in the current landscape. This company also isn’t just about Sam Mendes as the sole director, but we’d identified Angus Jackson to direct it for his phenomenal work on Elmina's Kitchen.
In the end, though – and this was one of those lessons, which is a lesson we’re not learning for first time – that at the end of the day, all of those things are perhaps not as relevant as you think when you’re trying to build an audience, than what is the taste of the critics, what do they want to see? You stand or fall by that judgement. Of course, you can’t argue with the critical response – that’s the way it works, it’s very pure and simple. Your job is a critic and my job is a producer – I have to stand or fall by what you see on the night. I always thought that this play would get a mixed response, but I didn’t expect the consensus against the play to be as strong as it was.
You can’t argue with it, but I think it’s intriguing that it’s new work that suffers more as a result. We’re working in a context in which I, for one, will have to think very carefully about what can be sustained in terms of new work in the West End. Can one introduce new writers who are unknown into that context? The answer is probably not.
There’s more excitement for audiences going to buildings like the National or Donmar, where they have a sense of an ongoing relationship that’s more meaningful than just going to ‘another theatre’ in the West End. But you need to build up that brand with good programming first. And it’s a much harder climb to imagine finding the project that will invite a sense of more accessibility about the West End than one would like to think.
Managing Director, Ambassadors Theatre Group,
& co-producer of The Holy Terror
Candidly, this is one of those situations where there are always some things that sell better than others. Some ventures don’t work, just as some lines in Marks and Spencer don’t sell.
The reality is that there are plenty of hit shows at the moment, and plenty of ventures are doing just fine. Why is the fact that Calico coming off is an interesting story, but Endgame succeeding is not? It’s a banal, ill-informed debate.
Yes, there’s still a slight dip, particularly in certain types of North American visitors, who, since 9/11, haven’t come back, but that has affected all sorts of businesses. Apart from that, I don’t think there is an issue.
When not enough people come to a show and it closes, that doesn’t mean that the whole thing is dead – it just means that that venture didn’t work. New plays are increasingly difficult, it’s true. Not least because there seems to be a predilection in the critical community not to take many risks themselves in what they support. Of course it’s tricky, new work is always going to be tough, but producers just have to keep on putting new plays.
With The Holy Terror, I was very disappointed that it didn’t work. Nonetheless, it was a worthwhile thing to do, and I believe in Simon Gray as a writer. People get knocked, but most of us stay at the crease batting and just keep going.
A lot of confidence has been lost in the West End because a lot of poor work has been put on there, some of which is just poor and some of which is poor because it focused on individuals rather than the show. Some of the risks people are taking are not worth it – they’re doing wacky stuff that nobody wants to see.
Journey's End may seem like a fluke hit, but it’s a very good play in a very good production and it’s not reliant on stars. People are coming to see the production, not whoever is in it. What I’m trying to do is put on work to encourage people to see good theatre. If you put on a good play, done properly, people will want to come and see them and word-of-mouth will generate an enthusiasm for them.
There are a lot of absolutely arcane practices going on in the West End. I have fairly intense discussions with people a lot of time about how can approach things differently. It’s difficult to get some agents and suppliers to think creatively, and it’s difficult therefore to structure a production in a way that will allow it to succeed. We really advocate short runs on shows.
Journey's End was originally only scheduled to run for eight weeks, and you can actually make your money in that time. The most successful show I’ve produced so far was King Lear with Timothy West at the Old Vic – we said you have to come and see it, but you’ve only got six weeks to do it in.
It’s also pays off not to enter the rat race of offers. The moment you do two for the price of one discounts, you’re making a joke out of putting the pricing structure the way it was. They just don’t work anymore. You can do all the offers you want, but ultimately, the product has to be good. If the work is good, you will make money. A low offer is the death knell of a show.
Producer of The Shape of Things
We were relying on The Shape of Things to take off after the reviews, and we did get a lot of good ones, but we opened literally in line with the warm spell of weather. It was a tricky time to open. We felt we had a really good cast, though we knew it wasn’t a particularly big selling cast. The play had to sell on its own merits. But people spending this sort of money don’t seem to want to take a risk on a new play like this.
It’s incredibly hard to make money in this industry, but very easy to lose it very quickly. If you’re running losses on a show of £15,000 a week, four weeks go by and you’ve lost another £60,000. If I had the money for another month, I would have loved to have given The Shape of Things a bigger shot, but I can’t afford to. I have to prioritise the creditors and pay the bills.
It’s going to take me a long time to get over this, and I’m not sure I will ever produce in the West End again. I do mostly touring productions, and rely on them to earn a living.
If you have any comments on the topics raised in this or Mark Shenton’s earlier feature, please do feel free to post them – and read what other theatregoers are saying – on the Whatsonstage.com Discussion Forum.