Doing the Strand
With ticket sales in the West End buoyed on a rising tide of popular musical theatre, Mick Owen ventures into the heart of Theatreland and wonders whether the promise of a televisual experience is selling audiences short.
The Adelphi: Lee Mead not pictured
The Adelphi: even from across the street, Lee Mead still not visible
It can have come as no real surprise to the Society of London Theatre that when they counted the 2007 takings for West End theatres they found that overall attendances had risen by about 10%. Box offices along the Strand and environs must have been stretched from the moment Connie Fisher opened as Maria in January to when Lee Mead took his final curtain call of the year in Joseph on New Year’s Eve.
Given the demographic of The Leisure Review’s readership, most will not need telling that the full titles of the two shows that derived most benefit from BBC 1’s search for a Saturday night audience are actually The Sound of Music and Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. But thanks to Graham Norton and his colleagues two great ensemble pieces are now all and only about “Our Marias and our Josephs”.
The question must be whether it is actually possible to demean musical theatre, a form of entertainment that defines popular and populist entertainment. Should it matter that a fair proportion of the 1.5 million added patrons of London’s theatre land were drawn only by the products of the inexorable TV talent show? Should the chattering classes be chattering about the dumbing down of the West End?
The first answer is: “It was ever thus.” Anyone inadvertently exposed to the Concert for Diana – as mawkish a piece of emotional manipulation as this country has seen since the people’s princess was actually buried – will have been treated to not one but three ‘Josephs’. Mr Mead was supported on stage at this grotesque by no lesser personalities (a key nomenclature in this debate) than Donny Osmond and Jason Donovan, both huge names in their time who achieved celebrity before “going into Joseph”.
The second response is: “What does it matter?” To answer that I will share with you a pre-Christmas experience. In the interests of both researching the subject for this organ and of making my partner happy I undertook a trip to the Great Wen for a spot of light sightseeing, some gentle shopping and a hefty dose of the sainted Lee.
Now, although I live halfway up a Pennine, I still occasionally brave the tinnitus and tawdry glitz of one big city or another for an injection of metropolitan culture and I know my way round a theatre, darling. Manchester’s Royal Exchange is a magnificent edifice – a metallic spider crouching in the vaulted hall of the old Corn Exchange spewing actors, technicians and audiences from its copious exits and entrances; Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre again combines ancient and modern to produce a feeling of ‘theatre’, while even the dull, modernist building that houses Sheffield’s Crucible reeks of greasepaint.
In contrast The Adelphi is theatre’s equivalent of factory farming. The doors open to allow the pavement-filling queues to file in, find their seats and sit down. Quick: before it starts. There is so little time before the door opens and the show starts that even joining the queue to the toilet is fraught with doubt, especially for the women who make up 80% of the matinee audience. Ladies who lunch, mothers and grandmothers, women with grinding factory jobs on their works outing; all come to see – pause, genuflect, blush – Lee.
When everyone is safely ensconced in the midget-friendly seating it’s ‘overtures and beginners’ and the magic that is a West End show unfolds before us; marvellous. Lee Mead is marvellous. The supporting cast is marvellous. If thousands of schools can’t mess up this show a professional outfit under the scrutiny of a vulpine media are not about to produce anything less than a wondrously slick and engaging production. And so they do. Even the camels are word-perfect.
At the interval I take the opportunity to check out the décor and general disposition of The Adelphi and return to my seat disappointed. There is little plush, no gilt and nary a cherub nor a Greek frieze in sight. With literally thousands of punters squeezing past every day, the paintwork is battered, the drapery dulled, the flooring mean. It’s a dreary, dispiriting vessel into which Lee is pouring the champagne of his talent and when the second half starts he is back to do just that; at some length. But the crowd love him and are easily manipulated into a standing ovation, or two, or three. It’s de rigeur; it’s why we bought our overpriced tickets; it’s an integral part of “the Joseph Experience”.
For what is being touted is an extension of a television programme, not a piece of theatre. The audience references Van Outen and Norton, not Olivier and Bernhardt, nor even Paige and Dickson. There is no sense of occasion, no joy in the experience. The building is built to process punters; there is no circulation room, no space to meet and chat with friends. The audience are got in, given the product and got out: processed.
Contrast this to another theatre experience closer to home. Marple’s Davenport Theatre only opens Wednesday to Saturday but their offering changes regularly and the staff are friendly, helpful and seem genuinely pleased to see you. There is no crush in the foyer, loads of leg room even in the stalls, diffident young people will sell you sweets before the show and then bring trays of ice cream-related comestibles to your seats during the intermission. We saw the latest Harry Potter there and loved every minute of the experience. They even have a curtain that parts to reveal the British Board of Film Censors certificate.
Two very different experiences that challenge the preconception that it is the multiplex cinema that shares practices with the cattle-rearing industry and the theatre that leaves you feeling like a toff. And the ‘magic’ of television has led to this pass by inflating demand and thus the commercial expectations of theatre managers.
But should it be of any concern to the man on the Trans Pennine Trail whether or not West End theatres are becoming rather too cheap and cheerful for comfort? There is another theatrical tradition that hints at the answer. I searched one of the best website addresses ever dreamt up (www.its-behind-you.com) in a desperate attempt to find an apposite analogy for the cheapening of the theatre-visiting experience. Enquiring about the “goose that laid the golden eggs”, I discovered that it was Mother Goose herself that owned an avian golden egg purveyor. I also discovered that she failed to treat said bird with sufficient care and lost it, eggs and all, to a character called Demon Discord. It seems to me that The Society of London Theatres would do well to consult their own history before getting any deeper into their relationship with Demon TV or the golden goose of increased audience figures won’t just be lost. The goose will inevitably be lost but the short-term pursuit of throughput will have throttled the life out of theatre as commited supporters and the idly curious alike lose interest in being treated as just another figure in a balance sheet.
Mick Owen is a coach, trainer and consultant. His sporting background belies a sensitive and artistic nature.
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