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Solving the West End traffic jam

There are so many shows waiting for their chance to enter the West End

An audience at The London Palladium
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

It's official (and given lockdowns, this is so nice to say) – the West End is packed. Squeezing in a new show is proving particularly tricky – as one hit musical's team member told me on phone recently, it's a case of trying to keep momentum high until the right venue becomes available.

The West End has always been highly sought after as a landing pad for big, critically lauded productions. But this current traffic jam feels especially hefty, with Operation Mincemeat, Spring Awakening, RENT, What's New Pussycat?, Mrs Doubtfire and more all reportedly looking for a pad, with Into the Woods, Animal Farm, a new version of Sherlock Holmes, Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of), Bugsy Malone and more all saying they're gunning for a central London audience.

So what's caused it? One obvious reason – the pandemic. A lot of big commercial shows, put on pause, now haven't yet had the chance to complete healthy, normal life cycles (one to two years or so). Potential audiences haven't yet been processed, meaning such shows still have a while to play out before gracefully seeing out their time.

At the same time, producing houses (the Almeida, Birmingham Rep, the Hope Mill Theatre, Theatre Royal Bath etc) have been churning out brilliant, new and exciting productions, all of whom are more than capable of attracting extra audiences.

We're also seeing a few of the venues normally fit for short burst runs having now become "forever homes" – the Vaudeville, typically a space for quirky dramas or comedies, is now the residency of six prolific queens, while the Playhouse has now been completely transformed for Cabaret, the Noël Coward has Hansen, the Piccadilly has Moulin Rouge! and the Trafalgar Studios is dedicated to big, blockbuster shows, while the Gielgud's hosting of Mockingbird will keep it occupied for a while. That doesn't mean that there aren't some spaces opening up – with Jamie vacating the Apollo (for the time being), the Criterion and the Arts Theatre now seemingly home to short-runners, there might be wiggle room yet.

Here are a few solutions:

Wait it out

Let's face it, this turbulence will probably be a short-term, rather than long-term issue. Lots of productions are more than happy biding their time (look at City of Angels, it took five years to transfer!) so with some logistical pragmatism, it'll probably sort itself out.

Build more theatres

That seems to be the current opinion of venue operator Nimax's Nica Burns, who is building a swish bespoke venue right by Tottenham Court Road. At the same time, Trafalgar Entertainment are building the swanky Olympia Theatre near Kensington, while the Bridge Theatre's operators have a currently unnamed venue planned for King's Cross.

Stop making the West End the go-to location

This is more of a philosophical point, but maybe there needs to be a greater push to dismantling the notion that the West End is the ultimate endgame for theatre. Rather than compacting so much attention into a few square miles, a concerted push to recognise the amazing work being done across the nation might well be a solution.

It's exciting to see shows like Newsies, heading to Wembley, realise that maybe building it is more than enough to make the audience come, and that older West End venues, often a nightmare from an access point of view, might not be the best place for a high-profile production. So here's to seizing the day and shining a light on shows that aren't just in the West End!