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the rattle of a dying art? 16 June 2004
Journey's End
Reasons to be cheerful...WW1 drama Journey's End is one of theatreland's current hits
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There's a fine line between success and failure in theatreland. Mark Shenton
examines the pulse of the West End and looks at what it takes to stand out here...

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London's currently beleaguered theatre producers could merge the titles of two recent flops to describe their predicament: the shape of things is a holy terror.

"A lot of confidence has been lost in the West End because a lot of poor work has been put on there..."
Phil Cameron, producer of Journey's End

But is this the rattle of a dying art? Are the producers all on a fence? Or are they simply being reduced to talking gibberish – Fuddy Meers, anyone?

Five shows alluded to above – The Holy Terror, Coyote on a Fence, Rattle of a Simple Man, The Shape of Things and Fuddy Meers – have all recently run for less than a month.

According to producer Sonia Friedman: "If you look at each of those plays, they will have their own story about why they failed.

The Holy Terror
Wrong play, wrong environment? Simon Callow's The Holy Terror came to an abrupt end

"Some will be about audiences fearing the risk, some will be about the plays not being good enough, some will be the wrong play in the wrong environment."

It will also, perhaps, be about the time of year: the arrival of sunny days and warm nights is always a disincentive to linger indoors in a hot, airless theatre.

unique selling point

But, Friedman goes on, "The West End is a very competitive environment, and in order to stand out here, you've got to have that unique selling point. It can be a hit transfer; it can be a star actor; it can be a title play from a great playwright.

"What it can't seem to be is just a good piece of theatre without anything around it. But then along comes Journey's End that debugs all those theories."

Journey's End
RC Sherriff's 1920s classic Journey's End has broken all the rules

RC Sherriff's 1920s classic, newly transferred from a limited run at the Comedy to an open-ended one at the Playhouse, has broken the rules.

Even its producer, Phil Cameron, admits as much: "It's an unlikely candidate to be a hit, but it's a very good play and a very good production and it's not reliant on star names to make it so."

It's still possible to succeed in the West End, though Cameron goes on: "A lot of confidence has been lost because a lot of poor work has been put on there."

new musicals on the way

But the theatre always seems to have the capacity to bounce back.

It's an industry suported by a vast public: over 4 million people went to a West End show in the first quarter of this year alone - far more than go to football matches, for instance – and productions at the National Theatre are routinely playing to 100% capacity.

Cameron Mackintosh
Cameron Mackintosh has just spent over £7m on refurbishing the Prince of Wales Theatre

Cameron Mackintosh has just spent over £7m on refurbishing the Prince of Wales Theatre; and there's a big set of new musicals on the way in the autumn, including Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest, The Woman in White, the much lauded New York hit The Producers, and stage versions of Mary Poppins, Billy Elliot and Brighton Rock.

I can't wait. So it's too early to write off the West End just yet.

useful links
journey's end
(The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites)
cameron mackintosh

listen
catch: mark shenton on london's first nights each sunday afternoon between 2.30 - 3pm on 94.9fm

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