It was a year of ripe drama for the British theater. The Royal Shakespeare Company temporarily withdrew from London. At the same time virtually the whole of subsidized legit, insisting it was woefully under-funded, passed the begging bowl.
In the commercial West End, despite a season of so-so shows and the return of economic hard times, attendance in the first half of 1990 actually rose. When the full year is tabulated, it’s likely to show that the West End got its share of whatever disposable income was still around.
Hit new plays included Alan Ayckbourn’s “Man Of The Moment” and David Hare’s “Racing Demon.” A rare revival of Pirandello’s “Henry IV,” as relevant now as ever, also resurrected the flagging fortunes of star Richard Harris – the critics couldn’t rave enough about him.
Predictably, the solons were less kind to Joan Collins on her return to the London stage after 12 years in Noel Coward’s durable “Private Lives.”
The Anglos made it a glitz year for Anglophile Stephen Sondheim (and collaborator James Lapine) with London productions of “Sunday In The Park With George” in rep at the Royal National and “Into The Woods” at the Phoenix. The latter, still running, copped the best musical prize in November at the 36th Evening Standard Drama Awards (which also saluted Harris as best actor).
New musicals that flopped included “King,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “Someone Like You,” the last a throwback turkey with Petula Clark that sent vet producer Harold Fielding into bankruptcy.
The one apparent hit tuner, “Five Guys Named Moe,” which producer Cameron Mackintosh transferred late in the year from a subsidized East End community theater, had six characters and an onstage band in a nostalgic celebration of the late comic singer Louis Jordan.
“Return To The Forbidden Planet,” a film genre spoof, upset favored “Miss Saigon” for the best musical Olivier award in April, outraging “Saigon” producer Mackintosh and touching off a debate that forced the Society of West End Theater to set up a panel to rethink award categories. The winner was a compilation of vintage songs.
The year brought another labor cliffhanger for the industry as backstage personnel in London and the provinces demanded better pay and other benefits. A typically British 13th-hour settlement kept the theaters open, at least for another year.
Preservationists won their fight to save the Dominion Theater, an Art Deco 2,000-seater that once was a firstrun film house but now hosts pop gigs and scenery-heavy musicals. Up for sale, the West End venue at one point had Broadway’s James Nederlander cooking a deal, but it fell through and the house is still looking for a buyer.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s bid to reprivatize his Really Useful Group, launched in February with an offer to shareholders valued at £ 77.5 million, finally was nailed down in December when the hitmaker corralled a holdout 6.7% stake held by the heirs of Aussie tycoon Robert Holmes a Court.
As the old year neared its close, some deep-in-the-hole nonprofits, including the Royal Shakespeare Company, got their 1991-92 federal subsidies pumped up by the Arts Council. But many more nonprofits were less fortunate, and some are likely to go belly up this year.
Critic Michael Billington noted in The Guardian that British theater, specifically the nonprofit sector, “is caught in a vicious economic spiral: Subsidies get cut, seats get more expensive, fewer people can afford to go.”
An example is the RSC’s main house in Stratford-on-Avon, where the top ticket is now £ 26 (£ 1 more than even the current top for major London tuners) and where admissions have slipped.