Dumb Shows: How Low Can Theatreland Go?

London, The Arts

At some point, theatre seems to have become confused with the circus. When I was a kid, Bertram Mills regularly staged spectacles in the West End, when you could go and watch a man threatening a tiger with a chair. This was separate from theatre, where you went to be moved or made angry by powerful plays written by playwrights with something to say.

Looking back at the stuff I saw then, from ‘The Royal Hunt Of The Sun’ to ‘The Ruling Class’, ‘The National Health’, ‘Home’ and ‘Butley’ (the first five that came into my head – I could list dozens) I can now see that this was some kind of golden age.

The West End occasionally comes up with a gem, but finding the next generation’s golden age amongst the ‘Dirty Dancing’ hen-shows isn’t easy. There was always dross in theatreland, from lame singalong musicals to unfunny sex-romps (anyone remember Paul Raymond’s notorious ‘Pyjama Tops?’) but we’ve now reached critical mass.

The reasons are complex but not entirely surprising. Show costs are high, so tickets are high, so expectations for what a show will provide for the ticket cost run high. Audiences complain when they don’t get lots of scenery, because they no longer expect to use their imagination. The anger that greeted the knockout production at the National of ‘A Matter Of Life And Death’ was bizarre, because it seemed to be about the ‘experimental’ aspects of the play – ie. it didn’t exactly follow the film.

And so we arrive at ‘Spiderman’ and ‘Shrek’ and ‘The Hunchback Of Notre Dame’ (which Disney wisely kept out of the West End). A long-running show makes pure profit, and if you license it out to many companies around the globe, as ‘Cirque Du Soleil’ and ‘Blue Man Group’ do, you make a fortune.

Small shows lose money. Having dipped a toe in these choppy waters myself, I can see why we can’t compete with the big brand shows. ‘Celebrity’ ran for two weeks to packed houses and lost money. If it had run for four weeks we’d have been in profit. The shorter the run, the harder it is to make a return unless your sets and lighting and actors are entirely geared for each venue change.

But if big business runs theatre, you can sit back in the safe hands of executives who will spoon-feed you colourful fun. A friend told me that ‘Dirty Dancing’ opens with six scene changes and hardly any dialogue. The excruciatingly awful ‘Love Never Dies’ pulls the same trick, loading its opening with tricks before settling down as a really cheap-looking show.

When ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean’ flies into theatres as a musical – and it will – we’ll have gone full circle, from theme park ride to movie to show. But then, that’s why we have the fringe.

One comment on “Dumb Shows: How Low Can Theatreland Go?”

  1. Can’t say I remember Pajama Tops, but I do remember how No Sex, Please, we’re British squatted some theater at the lower end of Charing Cross Road all through the 80’s.

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