Ben Hewis: 'Could a younger audience have saved Show Boat from sinking?'

With ”Show Boat” cutting short its voyage, our deputy editor considers the downfalls of not bringing a younger crowd into certain shows

The cast of Show Boat
The cast of Show Boat
© Johan Persson

One of the most all-round fulfilling nights out in the West End right now is Daniel Evans' production of Show Boat. Its stunning set, ebullient ensemble and stirring songs combine to produce a genuinely wholesome evening of entertainment.

And it has just announced its closure four months ahead of schedule.

You're probably wondering how a show that received widespread critical acclaim – including at least six five star reviews – when it sailed into town last month is struggling to put bums on seats.

The answer may have been apparent on my recent trip to revisit the show having loved it at the Crucible. Two thirds of the seats were empty and, at 31-years-old, I was easily 40 years below the average age of the audience. This doesn't matter, of course, there's nothing wrong with running shows for the Third Age, but do we really want the younger generation of theatre goers heading out only to see the likes of In the Heights and Kit Harington in Doctor Faustus?

The answer to that is no, theatergoing is as much about education as entertainment, and whilst Show Boat turns 90 next year its themes – from racial and gender inequality to the downfalls of drinking and gambling – are as relevant today as they were in 1927. Contrary to popular belief, this is not an 'old-fashioned' show and young theatergoers should be part of the discussion.

Secondly, what will happen to the musicals from the turn of the 20th century if we don't keep bringing younger audiences to them? The film adaptation and subsequent revivals by the likes of Opera North and RSC have helped Show Boat reach its 90th birthday, but if we're not actively encouraging the younger generation into the Show Boats, Oklahomas and Guys and Dolls' there's a good chance that demand could just fizzle out within 10 – 20 years.

Perhaps commercial theatre producers should adopt the Under 26 schemes offered by venues like the National whose Entry Pass scheme gets members £5 tickets to every show.

Perhaps the responsibility lies with the marketing agencies whose job it is to promote these productions to the market, or perhaps it's the producers telling the marketing agencies to actively target a certain 'safe' age range.

The more cynical among you may feel the only way to get 'today's youth' into Show Boat is by casting Benedict Cumberbatch as Gaylord Ravenal.

Whatever the case, to ensure these classics don't go sailing down the river for good we have to get the youngsters on the boat whilst it's still in town.