Subsidised theatre has always been a Conservative target. Why, the argument a seems to run, should theatre be given money to ‘improve’ the middle classes who are the only people interested in it?
The flipside of that mantra is that a healthy West End is good for the entire industry, and healthy local theatre feeds the West End. As if to prove the point, last week’s Olivier Awards were swept by a tiny local theatre, the superb 325-seater Almeida Theatre, which happens to be my nearest playhouse. This season’s roster has included hit after hit, the satire ‘Charles III’, ‘Ghosts’, ‘Chimerica’, ‘1984’ and ‘American Psycho’. And with West End prices tipping £100 a seat, it’s affordable.
I haven’t seen any of them except ‘Chimerica’ when it transferred to a bigger venue.
The Almeida is subsidised. But it’s not encouraging those who never go to the theatre to discover new plays. It’s in Islington, home of the former PM, where houses start at a million and there’s no shortage of big money, so the idea of subsidising it is a joke. And you can’t ever get tickets, no matter how early you try to book. It also runs a corporate sponsorship scheme, so that visiting middle-managers can have staff outings to the theatre while locals can’t get in.
A friend of mine stages plays in the North of England that engage local audiences with stories set in their area. The North has had its funding cut as re-zoning means that one small amount must cover all theatres in the region. The accepted idea of making a theatre work is to mix between populist seat-fillers and more demanding fare. He’s currently showing a play about Ed Snowden in between nights with local music. But he knows what people really want. At the Oliviers, the British public voted for what they thought was the best of British theatre, and picked ‘Les Miserables’, the bombastic musical which has been running for 30 years.
And while the tiny Donmar Theatre gets stars like Nicole Kidman in its plays, you’ll never get a ticket even if you wanted to (because you really want to go to ‘Les Miserables’ anyway). The idea of the neediest theatres getting the subsidies has evaporated.
There’s another unspoken problem; underfunded local theatres are short of directors and attract incompetent ones, whereas theatres in rich areas drawn on a more skilled gene pool. A local pub theatre in Islington, the King’s Head, once staged engaging powerful plays – now it only does operas. Only the rough-edged Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn manages to tread the right line. You play to your catchment area.
Theatre is a deep-rooted part of London life. The one-legged actor Samuel Foote’s merciless impersonations of famous figures eventually resulted in the foundation of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, a people’s theatre that was granted a royal charter. Now that grand edifice charges the highest prices in London and only stages tat for tourists.
When I was a schoolboy, we used to be allowed into theatres through the scenery docks to watch rehearsals. By the time I was 18 I’d seen most of Shakespeare’s output. After that, I paid a couple of pounds to stand at the back and watch plays. Now, a London theatre outing for the family, with travel and something to eat, can come to £500.
The London Theatre Museum lost its subsidy and collapsed, so that the history of this most vibrant arm of the arts can no longer be explored by new generations. But at the moment we have a government that bans prisoners from receiving books – so for now, at least, the new philistinism is here to stay. ‘Mamma Mia’, anyone? It’s only a £100 a seat.