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Michael Coveney: Flower of Scotland, and musical theatre

By • West End
Congratulations to Laurie Sansom, the English director who is to succeed another English director, Vicky Featherstone, as head of the National Theatre of Scotland. This must surely be a blow to the Scottish Government, which funds the NTS directly, and a feather in the cap of all those who oppose an independent Scotland, seeing that great country as an indivisible part of Great Britain, for all its distinctive cultural and political features.

It is a curious fact that theatres in Scotland have traditionally been run by Englishmen, or even Irishmen, though the Lyceum in Edinburgh has long been the province of Scottish artistic directors; and its reputation  never so low. The Traverse was founded by an American and has more often been run by Englishmen than Scots, although the present incumbent is Irish.

Perhaps the announcement that next year's Edinburgh Festival will be the penultimate of Aussie Jonathan Mills will produce an appointment as his successor more conducive to the referendum campaign of the Scottish National Party and their leader Alex Salmond.

Mills has been a really fine international festival director, but the minimal participation of Scottish, or indeed British, theatre companies has been too noticeable for comfort. This year's Robert Burns show, Tam O'Shanter, for instance, from Communicado, should have been on the main festival programme, not the fringe.

Sansom, though, seems a good fit for the NTS, warming up recently for the "theatre without walls" policy of the homeless organisation by going all site-specific with his well-received double-bill of The Bacchae and Blood Wedding for the Royal & Derngate, Northampton, where he has been a brilliant successor to Rupert Goold.

He has flirted with the National Theatre in England with his revelatory productions of little known plays by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill, which came to the Cottesloe from Northampton; but his fully-fledged debut there, The Holy Rosenbergs by Ryan Craig, was an in-the-round on-the-whole failure. Now aged 40, Sansom has nonetheless stacked up an impressive CV, working as Alan Ayckbourn's associate at Scarborough, and at the Watford Palace, before taking over at Northampton in 2006. 

No organisation like the NTS can possibly have one single priority, but one of many might be to give a larger international focus to their work by making a splash at the Edinburgh Festival. This year's NTS offerings on the fringe - Appointment with the Wicker Man, and Love Letters to the Public Transport System - were little short of pitiful for a company with big aspirations.

And although I'm in something of a minority on this, I didn't think all that much of the trendy journalistic collaboration with the London Review of Books on Enquirer, a far cry from the blood and guts early glory days of Black Watch.

The NTS is clearly one of the producing agencies where we might expect to see some genuine innovation in the world of musical theatre, possibly along the lines of David Greig's delightful Midsummer at the Traverse three years ago, or even Rufus Norris's brilliant production of London Road by Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe at the National more recently.

So I don't really understand all the nonsense over Loserville at the Garrick, a flat but relentlessly irritating, though energetically performed, High School musical that has served its purpose in generating enthusiasm and a certain  level of traditional performance skills at the Youth Music Theatre UK but which is hopelessly out of its depth in the West End.

My old friend Mark Shenton says we have to celebrate what's good about Loserville and support the cause of new musicals. These are admirable sentiments. But they have nothing to do with criticism. And if indiscriminate blanket support for new musicals is the key, where does that leave the genuinely good new stuff - such as London Road - in the critical pecking order?

There was far more talent and theatrical accomplishment in evidence in Stiles and Drewe's Betty Blue Eyes last year, but that suffered the indignities of critical scorn without a concomitant rearguard campaign of Loserville proportions. Most musicals open to mixed reviews, even the best ones, it's a fact of life; and some which open to vivid mixed reviews (and even a few raves), such as Les Miserables, are then touted, even by their own producers, as having opened to uniformly bad reviews.

It seems like a no-win situation. I think the champions of Loserville owe it a more rigorous and detailed defence, if there is one. I don't see, for instance, where there is room for improvement. The one thing you can say about Loserville is that it works absolutely rigidly by its own twinkling lights: it's a done deal, watertight and unassailable - except, of course, by critics who look for a lot more. Signs of real life, for instance, or musical genius.


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