Don't knock stunt casting, it holds the key to theatre's future

Matt Trueman reflects on the role of stunt casting in British theatre

Tanya Burr
Tanya Burr
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Stunt casting is all too easy to sniff at. Remember when Justin Lee Collins, fresh from The Friday Night Project, not yet up in court on harassment charges, donned a tie-dye shirt to lead Rock of Ages alongside The X Factor‘s Shane Ward? Or when Disney’s prince Nick Jonas manned the barricades in Les Mis? What about Nicole Scherzinger's Grizabella or Ronan Keating in Once? Toby Anstis as Teen Angel, anyone? (Anyone?)

The list of celebrities cast adrift in the West End could fill volumes were it written down. Chicago might need a tome of its own, having long relied on recognisable Roxies and B-list Billy Flynns. Cuba Gooding Jr, who steps up next month, is the latest in a long line of casting curiosities: Mel B, Jerry Springer, Usher and even, on Broadway, NFL running back Eddie George. If the gossip website Popbitch is to be believed, Cheryl Cole could be en route in due course.

Artistic credibility can be sacrificed on the altar of commercial viability

If we turn our noses up, it’s not just at the naffness. It’s because proven talent and stage experience is put second to the pull of celebrity. Parts that might have been doled out on merit have gone, instead, to the biggest, most affordable name. Artistic credibility is sacrificed on the altar of commercial viability.

Last week, it was announced that the YouTube star Tanya Burr will make her stage debut at the Southwark Playhouse in spring. The 28 year-old vlogger will star in a revival of Judy Upton’s Confidence, marking the play’s 20th anniversary.

Burr may have turned her attention to acting of late, starring in a short comic film last year, but she’s far better known for her beauty tips than her acting chops. The vlog she started in her Norwich bedroom as a teenager nine years ago has rocketed her to social media stardom: 3.7 million YouTube subscribers, 3.2 million Instagram followers and the same again on Twitter. If every one of her YouTube subscribers bought a ticket to Confidence, she’d have the Southwark Playhouse’s studio space sold out for the next 87 years.

This isn’t commercially-minded cynicism, but an attempt at making theatre accessible.

Cynicism, you might cry – a cheap bit of stunt casting designed to deliver a few column inches and put bums on seats. That, though, would be to ignore the company behind Confidence: Boundless Theatre. Led by artistic director Rob Drummer, formerly of HighTide and the Bush, it aims all its work at young audiences. It speaks to and for those aged between 15 and 25, and when it comes to reaching that demographic, enticing them along to the theatre, perhaps for the first time, Burr becomes a huge boon. The fact that she has no ties to the art-form whatsoever is, in this instance, a massive advantage. Burr will pull people in from afar.

On Drummer’s part, it’s a deliberate ploy. He knows all too well that the audience Boundless is out to attract is more likely to be looking at Snapchat than they are, well, WhatsOnStage. This isn’t commercially-minded cynicism, but an attempt at making theatre accessible.

The thing is, there’s a fine, fine line between the two. Both approaches drive directly at the widest possible appeal. They seek to attract non-traditional theatregoers.

There are times when the two things elide rather brilliantly, and the commercial sector reaches new audiences in ways that subsidised organisations can only dream of. The other week, I watched a line of 50-plus people queuing up, post-show, at Glengarry Glen Ross to meet Christian Slater. One leather-clad couple, pulling the Slater in for a selfie, gushed that they’d named their son after the star. I’m projecting, but the two of them didn’t seem like habitual theatregoers and, while Slater was the draw, they’d just sat through one of the classic plays of the 20th century. Around one in ten members of that matinee crowd had stayed behind to see him at the stage door. That’s no small thing.

Director Jamie Lloyd’s a master of this. By casting the Game of Thrones heartthrob Kit Harington – like Slater, no slouch on the stagecraft front – as Doctor Faustus two years ago, he pulled a massive young audience into a Marlowe play. You could say much the same about Daniel Radcliffe’s decision to make his stage debut in Peter Shaffer’s Equus or Ivo van Hove casting Style Rookie editor Tavi Gevinson in his Crucible on Broadway. These actors bring new eyes to brilliant plays.

The issue, always, comes down to this: to what end and at what price? Sniff all you want, but stunt casting done well – and done without cynicism – can achieve something admirable.