"If I had a pound for every article saying the West End is over or London theatre is finished, I'd be a rich man", Howard Panter said last week. But he'd be even richer if it wasn't for a disastrous series of recent productions in some of the West End theatres his Ambassadors Theatre Group operates.

The run of bad luck began in December with the short-lived revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses that was rushed into the Playhouse, continued at the Duke of York's with Calico and The Holy Terror, was followed by Rattle of a Simple Man at the Comedy – all of which closed within a month or less of opening - and has just seen notices go up on The Shape of Things at the New Ambassadors.

At other theatres around town, Coyote on a Fence lasted a mere three weeks at the Duchess, and now comes the news that the hit Broadway musical Thoroughly Modern Millie is to shutter at the Shaftesbury after a run of only eight months.

Malaise or crisis?

Is this the annual malaise in the West End, which partly depends on a regular turnover of product to stop it from atrophying, or are there signs of a genuine crisis in town? The onset of good weather is always bad news for theatres, with sunshine emptying houses faster than you can say flop. But what are some of those shows doing there in the first place?

While top West End ticket prices, particularly for musicals, have recently been catching up with those charged on Broadway (despite the fact that London production costs are far lower than they are in New York), producers here also seem to be emulating New York's tendency to bring down the curtain early on productions that once might have been nurtured into a run.

"I don't close shows; producers do", was the perennial cry of Frank Rich during his reign as critic of The New York Times. But producers aren't so brave, or their pockets so deep, that they can sustain a show that critics, and more importantly the public, don't immediately respond to. Neither, in the chicken-and-egg situation that the theatre finds itself in, are the public so brave, or their pockets so deep (and required to get deeper all the time), that they can support a show that the critics, or more importantly the producers, don't have enough faith in, either.

Recent topics on the Whatsonstage.com Discussion Forum reflect the thoughts of committed theatregoers, and a crisis of faith in what's being provided is evident. As regular correspondent Job remarks, "The overall flavour of the West End at the moment is simply not stimulating enough for me to prioritise the kind of money they want me to spend on it."

We've not quite reached Broadway's pragmatic embrace of failure that, for instance, saw one production in the last season (Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All starring Ellen Burstyn) open and close on the same fateful November night. But, with a requirement to give at least two weeks’ notice of closure to actors and post bonds to cover running costs for at least that long, once it becomes apparent a show isn't going to fly, British producers are now getting out as quickly as they can within those time frames.

What lessons, if any, can be learnt from the current spate of early closures, and might it have been better had they not flown at all?

Damned when they don't & when they do

New plays are always risky. West End producers are damned when they don't do new work - but also too often damned when they do. Michael Hastings - who has had hit plays in nurtured environments like the Royal Court with Tom and Viv (subsequently filmed) and Hampstead Theatre with Gloo Joo (subsequently transferred to the West End) - had a rude awakening when thrown straight into the commercial spotlight with Calico (See News, 22 Mar 2004).

Despite a high-calibre production and excellent quality casting, not to mention a potentially helpful nude scene from up-and-coming star Romola Garai, the play quickly bombed. It didn’t help that some reviews were negative, but they were by no means overwhelmingly bad. With its pedigree and literary subject - the friendship of Samuel Beckett and James Joyce - it's the kind of play that would have sold out at the National's Cottesloe before a single review had been written.

It’s failure underlines the difference between the West End and a place like the National, Almeida, Donmar Warehouse or Royal Court, all of which have access to a database of theatregoers who rely more on the tastes of the artistic management to steer them towards what to see, rather than the tastes of the critics who write about those choices after they've been made.

As Caro Newling, previously of the Donmar and now of Scamp Film and Theatre Ltd, the commercial production company she’s founded with Sam Mendes and Pippa Harris (See News, 13 Feb 2004), comments on her new circumstances: "You haven't got a building brand which, if you get your programming right, is stronger than the production that you do, so that people will book across the season, or in good faith." Scamp’s opening production, the critically mauled Fuddy Meers, is now struggling at the Arts.

Track record

As for Simon Gray, a playwright once embraced by the National, he's also now floundering in the commercial environment that once sustained him. Gray has a track record - though not necessarily, of late, a particularly healthy one, sometimes for circumstances beyond his control (such as an absconding star in Stephen Fry with his play Cell Mates).

Gray's audience have greyed with him, and maybe they're not with him any more after a run of disappointments. The Holy Terror, a re-heated version of one of those disappointments called Melon, simply compounded the problem (See News, 26 Apr 2004). Whether Gray fares better with his next original play, The Old Masters (See News, 4 Jun 2004), opening at the Comedy later this month after its Birmingham premiere, we are yet to see.

Bruce Graham's Coyote on a Fence - tried out in the studio of Manchester's Royal Exchange before an abortive transfer to the Duchess - was an issue play, about capital punishment in a southern American state, that lacked resonance and relevance here. Not even the committed acting performances of Ben Cross and Alex Ferns could redeem it, and neither were big enough names to attract audiences to see in their own right (See News, 11 May 2004).

As for Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things, although it played briefly to a sell-out audience at the Almeida at King's Cross in 2001, it simply hasn't had the commercial legs to be reprised three years later, with a different (and mostly unrecognisable) cast, even though many critics still recommended it (See News, 1 Jun 2004).

Tried, tested & true

If new plays don't provide a recipe for success, producers can't be blamed for sticking to the tried, tested and true, can they? The trouble is that playing "safe" isn't a sure thing either.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses was a long-running West End hit when it originally transferred from the Royal Shakespeare Compnay in the 1980s. But a short-lived revival at the Playhouse last December was ill-judged for several reasons (See News, 30 Dec 2003). Partly it was down to the timing - opening just before Christmas is never a good idea. Partly it was down to the casting - the not-quite-famous cast were better known for their parents and siblings than in their own right, with Jared Harris (son of Richard), Emilia Fox (daughter of Edward) and Laurence Penry-Jones (brother of Rupert) among them.

More dynamic casting might have given a better reason for audiences to want to see Liaisons again, but mainly it just wasn't a very good production, and the critics (and audiences who saw it and reported their feedback on this site) said so.

Once again, Whatsonstage.com Discussion Forum regular Job hits the nail on the head when he says: "Why do so few producers twig that the secret of a long-runner is good word-of-mouth? You can stuff a show with superstars, but if it's crap it's crap, and disillusioned audiences will be quick to tell their friends it's crap".

Sometimes, too, a "safe" revival is simply past its sell-by-date. Despite giving Rattle of a Simple Man to John Caird to direct, and casting it with a pair of soap and sitcom stars in Michelle Collins and Stephen Tompkinson, nothing could disguise how dated Charles Dyer’s 1962 comedy was (See News, 25 May 2004).

Fate of the West End

Is the West End - many of whose buildings are obsolete and uncomfortable environments in which to watch shows - becoming furthermore an irrelevance? Just as younger audience members, priced out of theatregoing, are deserting the theatre for cheaper, more reliable entertainments, so the lifeblood of future shows, young theatre producers, are also being demoralised.

"It's incredibly hard to make any money in this industry," says Kenny Wax, the thirty-something producer of The Shape of Things, "but it's very easy to lose it very quickly. 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."

So the saying goes, the only way to become a millionaire producer is to begin as a billionaire producer. Producing usually empties the bank rather than fills it. However, strike it big (or lucky) and you're made. As another wit observed, "You can't make a living in the theatre, but you can make a killing!"

Not that even a massive hit ensures a windfall. Though the likes of Madonna and Judi Dench have had frenzied sell-outs in the West End in recent years, neither of them committed to long enough seasons to make serious money for their investors. So if even that kind of casting coup is no guarantee for producers, what is?

Perhaps it's time for the West End to start reinventing itself. The transformation of the Whitehall into two studio spaces, the Trafalgar Studios, inaugurated last week (See News, 3 Jun 2004), is one route to making a problematic theatre viable again. Another is to introduce and sustain an artistic identity in the West End.

The West End’s larger theatres continue to provide the “Big Night Out” experience with blockbuster musicals - though even this needs safeguarding by improving the audience experience of the venues themselves, as Cameron Mackintosh's £7 million makeover of the newly reopened Prince of Wales has done (See News, 20 May 2004) – but the rest of the West End needs the kind of shake-up that makes it a compelling place to choose to visit in the same way that the National or Royal Court routinely does.

That's exactly the thinking behind the Old Vic's employment of Kevin Spacey as artistic director. Here’s a venue which is a bit off the beaten track and which was, previously, limping from commercial booking to booking. Now it looks like the Old Vic might have an identity again at last, as it had when the National was here in the 1960s and 70s, and subsequently with Jonathan Miller and Peter Hall-based companies in the 1980s and 90s.

If you have any comments on the topics raised in Mark Shenton’s feature, please do feel free to post them – and read what other theatregoers are saying – on the Whatsonstage.com Discussion Forum.