Is The Fringe Killing Itself?
In the view of our current arts-hating present government, theatre is something that must pay its own way and turn a profit by putting on populist shows for punters. That’s fine for the West End, I suppose (it wasn’t once, but let’s not dwell). And London has – or at least, had – an astonishingly vibrant fringe of non-West End shows providing a diet of intelligent, experimental theatre for minds that wanted a little more than ‘The Bodyguard’ or ‘Miss Saigon’.
But several things happened at once to create a perfect storm: Grants were cut, rents shot up, prices rose, Londoners became less adventurous and (as mentioned here often before) Time Out folded, leaving us with no information about smaller venues.
So fringe venues reached out to punters and asked them to sign up for information. And a two-tier system developed, with ‘feeder’ venues sending their best work into the West End. To do that, they needed to guarantee sales, so they started casting star names, until venues like the Almeida became slaves to stars.
And now we’re in a strange situation where some terrific London theatres are virtually unknown, like the Pleasance, the Finborough and the Rose and Crown (below), and others are no different to West End venues.
Those latter ones are impossible to get into unless you sign up for expensive membership schemes. The Menier Chocolate Factory has four levels of membership ranging from £40 to £2500, mostly without the added cost of the tickets. In Europe I’ve seen great subsidised theatre for as little as €5.
The result? Most of the people I know have stopped going to the top-tier fringe venues. This winter the Menier is staging ‘Assassins’, but there was a superlative production a couple of years ago at the virtually invisible Pleasance, so why bother seeing it a second time when you know all the best seats will be sold to priority members?
My question: if hardcore theatregoers like me give up on venues, who’ll go? And I guess the answer to that is – London is overcrowded and every high-end venue will get its audience. They’ll trot along to Sondheim and pop out for star vehicles, so who cares about the lack of something new?
Theatre made London unique. But now there are more exciting arts projects being broken out in the Midlands and the North, because, as on Broadway, we’re no longer catering for enquiring minds but for tourists with cash. The government got its wish.