Suddenly this summer, auds drying up

London’s West End is going through its periodic spring-into-summer slump, with people from all across the industry quick to cite the usual excuses for the fast fade and poor business clocked by many shows.

Euro 2004, Wimbledon, unseasonably hot weather one night, unseasonably wet and cold weather the next: as many explanations as there are underpopulated venues.

The difference is that this downturn may be more than just the usual seasonal moan. Maybe — just maybe — the real problem has to do with too many shows chasing an increasingly cautious, choosy audience amid an environment notably lacking in buzz.

The fact is, all too few West End productions, good or bad, are doing business. When Diana Rigg in “Suddenly Last Summer” — one of the year’s most acclaimed productions — is playing to 40% capacity at the Albery Theater, something clearly isn’t right.

In another climate or at another time, “Jerry Springer the Opera,” “The Goat” and “Democracy” all would be selling out. But at the moment, rare is the West End venue that even bothers to open all levels of the house at all perfs. (Unlike Broadway, some London theaters have as many as four levels, three of which were bustling at a recent Monday night perf of Simon Gray’s “The Old Masters,” that rare new entry that may survive mixed reviews to find its public.)

“A lot of shows haven’t done as well as they should be doing,” says Clare Lawrence, co-producer of the Garrick Theater revival of David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” which seems at least to have held its own. Lawrence says she expects the Aaron Eckhart/Julia Stiles two-hander to close in the black July 17, after the 13½-week run that was all her visiting American stars would commit to from the start.

Assuming the £300,000 ($540,000) venture ends up in profit, that will be more than was true of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” or “Fuddy Meers” or “Barbara Cook’s Broadway,” to cite three other American titles on the West End of late, all of which lost varying amounts. (“Millie” paid back about half its investment, says co-producer Duncan C. Weldon; a U.K. tour starts next year.)

“Fuddy Meers” was just one of the late-spring entries to barely stick around long enough to be noticed, the David Lindsay-Abaire play consigned to a speedy West End grave alongside Simon Gray’s “The Holy Terror,” Michael Hastings’ “Calico” and the revival of Neil LaBute’s “The Shape of Things” starring Alicia Witt.

But amid these critical and audience misfires, a more worrying trend finds various well-reviewed shows struggling to hold their own — among them, “Dirty Blonde,” the Claudia Shear Broadway export that at the moment looks touch-and-go to last the summer.

These are “nail-biting times,” says lead producer Dena Hammerstein. Auds at the Duke of York’s have been responsive, she says, “but sadly there ain’t enough of them.”

Lee Menzies, a producer on the since-departed “Shape of Things” as well as the newly opened cabaret show from American performer Lorna Luft, expands on that theme. “I’ve always believed that if you give the public what they want, they’ll come and see it,” says Menzies, speaking before Luft’s $800,000 show opened to withering overnight reviews July 6 at the Savoy.

“The trouble is, we don’t know what they want; it’s worrying, but we have to battle on.” “Battle” looks to be the operative verb, if Luft’s tribute evening to her mother, Judy Garland, is to last out the initially intended eight weeks. (“If the public want us to stay longer,” says Menzies, “I can assure you we will.”)

In fact, “Songs My Mother Taught Me” would seem to be just the latest in a new spate of derisively received ventures that are taking a hardly necessary additional nail to the West End coffin.

July 2 saw the opening at the Gielgud of “We Happy Few,” the debut play by actress Imogen Stubbs (“Hamlet”), which would be a commercial long-shot even at the best of times. Trevor Nunn’s production boasts a cast of 14, four understudies among them, as well as an offstage team that includes a composer, a choreographer and a filmmaker: It’s the sort of retinue more commonly associated with musicals, an art form not exactly unknown to Nunn.

And though the Daily Express’ Sheridan Morley gave the play the money review of one’s dreams — “If there has been a better or more achingly theatrical new play in the West End this past year, then I’ve not seen it or heard it” — others were less kind. At least three papers gave the production an unexciting two stars out of five, while the Financial Times’ Alastair Macaulay went with one star. Not to be outdone, the Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer closed his notice: “When the final curtain falls, it is like the blessed relief of the all-clear siren.”

Perhaps the real culprits are unreasonable critics. That’s the line taken by “When Harry Met Sally” producer James Tod, who says his play at the Haymarket had paid back more than 50% of its $900,000 capitalization prior to a summer recast but was now in for “a very rough time” ahead. (Molly Ringwald and Michael Landes have replaced Alyson Hannigan and Luke Perry in the starring roles.)

“I think (critics) are too harsh again and again,” Tod told Variety. “Even if you didn’t like this or that, you could say, ‘Well the audience are having a lovely time,’ and none of them is generous-spirited enough to say that.”

On the other hand, if crix are having a miserable time, why should they pretend otherwise to readers, in the process losing credibility and turning off a cash-conscious public?

Others recommend taking the broader view. Ambassador Theater Group co-founder and managing director Howard Panter says one must applaud a diversity of product that in his 12 ATG playhouses alone finds works by Williams, Pinter, Shakespeare and Michael Frayn, plus, uh, “Blood Brothers.” (OK, there’s one in every bunch.)

“I won’t buy the doom-and-gloom scenario,” Panter says. “We do too much; we’re involved in too much. We see the whole picture” — which presumably includes potential West End saviors down the line that remain, as yet, in embryonic form. The Michael Grandage-helmed revival of “Guys and Dolls,” due in April at the Piccadilly, should help.

Grandage, in turn, acknowledges “a risk factor attached to every single opening that goes on: You open in September, and then the Twin Towers get bombed.” The Donmar a.d., and helmer of “Suddenly Last Summer,” goes on: “There’s a terrible, terrible risk involved in every aspect of what we do.”

And as for the shape of things at the moment? Says Grandage: “It will pass.”

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