West End weathers grim season

Crix carp at commercial ethos, dearth of risk-takers

LONDON — What a difference a play makes.

Not long ago, a starry revival of a Chekhov classic was the West End norm, surrounded by a bracing new play or two and the usual brigade of musicals.

No more: Though the musicals run and run (and, some of them, run and run and run), the fact that Kristin Scott Thomas has opened to across-the-board raves in her West End theater debut (see review, page 32) deserves to make headlines.

After all, look at the level of fare on offer around her — “Mum’s the Word,” “The Rat Pack” and “Cliff, the Musical.” (Who, I can hear you asking?) Of those three titles, the only show I have actually seen was “The Rat Pack,” a vapid evening of karaoke to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. sound-alikes that is playing to clap-happy crowds and full houses.

This at the most beautiful of all West End addresses, the Haymarket, where the likes of Chekhov, Wilde, Shaw and Shakespeare once regularly held forth?

Welcome to the West End, spring 2003, where you can house Maggie Smith and Judi Dench one month — the two Dames recently packed out the Haymarket in David Hare’s “The Breath of Life” — and the next, offer an evening the Daily Mail’s Michael Coveney called “a sorry state of affairs.”

That, in fact, is exactly what many are saying about the state of the West End.

The real fuse was lit by another opening the same week as “The Rat Pack”: “Mum’s the Word,” a British version of a comic revue that began in 1993 in Vancouver and that many a London critic seemed to want to send straight back to Canada. While some reviewers merely sniped — the Mail on Sunday’s Georgina Brown, herself a mum, said, “This witless whinge-fest should have been strangled at birth” — the Evening Standard’s Nicholas de Jongh named names:

“Thanks, in some part, to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Howard Panter, who control most of London’s prime playhouses, the West End stage is at its lowest, lightest ebb for half a century,” he wrote. “Crisis looms.”

There followed a dispiriting catalogue of shows, of which, he added, ” ‘Mum’s the Word’ is the latest abysmal example.”

A week later, the Guardian’s Michael Billington weighed in, cautioning against “the glittering coffin” that the West End would become, shorn, he wrote, of “glamour, confidence and diversity of style.” In other words, three Abba evenings in a single year — yes, it’s true — are no substitute for the risk-taking plays by dramatists (Pinter, Ayckbourn, Stoppard) who once were West End staples and these days disappear quickly from the commercial theater — Ayckbourn’s “Damsels in Distress,” for instance — if they are even done there at all.

In part, of course, London is merely witnessing what long ago was clear on Broadway –the truly adventurous work happens away from the commercial glare. Indeed, the British capital has it over New York in offering countless state-funded venues where plays can be gently tested prior to — or, increasingly, instead of — risking the West End.

Joanna Murray-Smith’s “Honour,” for instance, can fill the National Theater’s tiny Cottesloe, fueled by raves for Eileen Atkins’ star performance, without chancing the West End. (It’s worth noting that the same play, albeit in a different production, did a fast fade from Broadway.)

Across town, Terry Johnson’s “Hitchcock Blonde” is being broken in, and selling out, at the Royal Court, from which it looks likely to transfer to the West End having been profitably pruned.

Still, in the 12 weeks this year prior to the press night for “Three Sisters,” the commercial theater has seen precisely one top-rank revival: Derek Jacobi in an immensely profitable Old Vic staging of “The Tempest” that took just under £1 million ($1.57 million) in 8½ weeks.

Exciting new plays? Since Jan. 1, not a single one, with the tiny Royal Court Theater Upstairs so far owning the monopoly on 2003’s most thrilling new texts thus far — “Terrorism,” from the Russian Presnyakov brothers, and an extraordinary Richard Bean play called “Under the Whaleback.”

On the musical front, the news is scarcely cheerier. U.S. import “Contact” will close at the Queen’s May 31 (possibly earlier), having scarcely made a dent in its $3.45 million capitalization.

“We’ve never been able to get over the fact that people still think we’re a dance show,” says Martyn Hayes, managing director of StageHolding U.K. The Dutch-owned company co-produced the Tony winner’s West End stand and still hopes to tour it on the Continent.

Even the putative one-two punch of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and local fave Denise Van Outen managed only an advance of $470,000 for “Tell Me on a Sunday,” the “revisal” that opened April 15 next door to “Contact.” A modest budget — less than $750,000 — may lead the show toward lucre in Van Outen’s 16-week stand (more, obviously, should she choose to extend).

But in a commercial climate in which “The Rat Pack” rules, and where Dawn French’s dreary solo show “My Brilliant Divorce” is steadily outgrossing its far costlier neighbor, Ian McKellen in “Dance of Death,” what chance of a resurgence to some semblance of West End glory?

London’s theater-owning heavyweights take the longer view, advising those who don’t like what’s on offer to wait. (That used to be said of the weather.)

“If you’d asked me 10 years ago, I would have thought the play would be a lot more dead in the West End than in fact it is,” says Andre Ptaszynski, chief exec of Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Theaters, which owns 12½ West End playhouses. (The half is the Adelphi, where the success of Oscar winner “Chicago” has pushed the West End Kander & Ebb revival back toward attendance of 90%-plus.)

“It’s very easy to make glib comparisons between 1973 and 2003,” adds Ptaszynski, with specific reference to Billington’s Guardian screed. “For critics to lament that producers aren’t being brave enough, or theater owners generous enough, is horseshit.”

Panter points to the arrival over the next few months in one or another of his Ambassador Theater Group’s 11 London theaters of starry revivals by the likes of Mamet (Matthew Perry in “Sexual Perversity in Chicago”), Pirandello (Joan Plowright in “Absolutely! (Perhaps”)), and Ibsen (Patrick Stewart in “The Master Builder”). And “Three Sisters” is shaping up to be, Panter says, “a proper hit,” playing to 90% for the week ending April 13 and wrapping more than $70,000 a day. The advance as of April 15 was a hefty $860,000, and a fall transfer to Broadway is being planned.

“I would be happy to have Mamet, Chekhov, Pirandello, Ibsen in any stable, as it were,” says Panter, arguing that the West End “obits are a trifle premature.”

“The climate is tough, as it is in every single business,” Panter acknowledges. “The theater goes up, and it goes down.” Rather like life.

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