A Good West End Show? The Odds Are Against You.
Geographically, London is a unique city. Because of fire, plague and war it has been continually rebuilt, and has gradually moved from East to West. And because it has always had so many residents right at its centre, each zone kept a distinct feel well into postwar years. Soho had a high population of council residents, and kept its market. Covent Garden was full of cheap accommodation because of its noisy working class fruit and veg depot. The city was strictly for bankers, Chelsea and Fitzrovia provided homes for artists, and so on.
The result of this complex tangle was that its theatre culture – the biggest in the world by far – offered a staggering range of entertainment from Jacobean, Elizabethan, Victorian and Edwardian dramas to the twice-nightlies and girlie shows, as well as contemporary and experimental plays. New York’s Broadway was not far behind either, because many people still lived in Manhattan.
Then property prices forced out Manhattan’s residents, turning the island mainly into a place for visitors and businessfolk. However, this didn’t happen in London so quickly because of its geographical sprawl, and it was still possible to rent a property in the very epicentre of the city that was affordable to young professionals earning a decent wage.
Now, though, London is losing its ability to provide central homes. The city’s population has leapt, and is largely in the hands of non-residents filling portfolios. That’s why Crossrail is a great idea; it will allow essential workers to live cheaply in the Eastern part of the city and take good jobs in the Western parts. But the West End is now strictly for out-of-towners.
What has this to do with West End theatre? Simple. Soaring prices means no risky projects, or even the production of anything vaguely unfamiliar. Brand identity took over and theatre became part of a kind of ‘Night Out In London’ package that involved taking in a musical and a meal. Now musicals outweigh plays, and jukebox musicals are outweighing plays with original music, so that everybody knows what to expect before they go in.
Which brings us tat like ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Viva- Forever!’, allowing drunken hen parties to la-la-la along with the cast. This is nothing new – low comics, singalongs and smut were long the staple of British theatre, but they were balanced by good new writing. With the fringe now acting as a showcase for West End transfers, there’s even less chance of seeing something good.
It’s getting tricky finding good new plays, but social networks are leading a revival by directing those in the know to new events by Shunt, Punchdrunk, Kneehigh and other highly rated theatre companies. There’s the trick thought, getting in the know. And with most tickets sold online, you have to be ready to hit ‘SEND’ fast.
One thing’s sure – if you leave it to a standard theatre guide, you’ll end up seeing something as bloated and empty as a Big Mac.