There seems to be good news from the West End, with headlines proclaiming ‘Box-office sales surge’, and ‘West End takings bounce back thanks to plays’. Yes, it’s that time again, when SOLT announces the quarterly results from West End theatre with a fanfare. We note that takings went up by 20%, whilst attendance only went up by 13%, so once again it seems that rising ticket prices are partly responsible for the resurgence.
And when we see which plays are singled out we can see why. According to ‘The Independent’, the upturn is thanks to ‘a string of big productions and star performers’, including Kevin Spacey as Richard the Third at the Old Vic, and Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre.
How is this good for theatre, we ask ourselves?
You only need to look at the Old Vic ticket prices for the plays preceding and following Richard III to see that Kevin Spacey rightly guessed that he could afford to add a hefty premium to the price and still sell plenty of tickets. There is one overwhelming reason for Kevin Spacey’s ability to attract a large audience at premium prices – he is a Hollywood film star. He may also be a competent stage actor (although in our opinion he was upstaged by Jeff Goldblum in ‘Speed the Plow’) but his popularity has not come primarily from his stage work. It is interesting to hear that Sam Mendes production employs so many cinematic devices, with the ‘coronation scene’ reportedly using a massive close-up of Spacey’s face on a screen. Some have suggested that the production contains small ‘tributes’ to some of Spacey’s best known film performances.
The other production, whose duplicate casting of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller we have already commented on, was guaranteed to sell out even without the gimmick of ensuring that certain sections of the audience were likely to book twice to see the play in order to see both performances of the lead roles. Once again, whilst Danny Boyle may have started out in the theatre, his massive fame and popularity comes from his success as a film director. Fair enough, we have enjoyed many of his films ourselves. But it can hardly be called a great achievement to sell out a very short run at the National Theatre with a name like his on board. Again, reviews suggest that this was a play worth seeing, although the main flaw seemed to be the script. Interesting – that’s an element that you might forgive in the cinema where non-verbal elements can compensate, but in the theatre, it’s a worrying trend.
Neither of these examples seem that easy to replicate, but we can certainly imagine a gradual degradation of quality as producers prioritise celebrity over solid theatrical credentials. And even when the credentials are there, as in David Tennant and Catherine Tate’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, the theatre finds itself having to put up a sign outside the stage door proclaiming that ‘the producers insist that, due to the volume of requests for autographs, David Tennant and Catherine Tate are unable to sign anything unrelated to this production’. And what exactly did the producers expect?
As recently discussed in Mark Shenton’s blog, it is very difficult to comment on finances in the West End, when there is so little transparency over figures. Judging by similarities in the reporting, the press is heavily reliant on the information they are given. If SOLT say that Kevin Spacey is almost single-handedly propping up the West End, we have to believe it. But why we should think that this is good news, we don’t know.