Last summer, my sisters and I took our collective gaggle of children to Honor Oak in South East London where we grew up and took them to see all the places we used to go to in our own childhood: Blythe Hill Park, the One Tree Hill woods, Stillness Primary School, our old family home. Having not been back in the area for some years, one of the best things about doing that – aside from sharing our childhood memories with our own children – was to revisit it and see how/if it differed. Some of the changes were immediately noticeable, such as the appearance of our former home and school and nearly all the park apparatus replaced (except one) – from the perspective of our grown-up eyes, seeing this huge, climbable wooden pirate ship we remembered playing on as kids as a tiny thing that stood a couple of feet from the ground was a real eye-opening moment. With other things though, it was as if they had almost been frozen in time. There was a knick-knack shop that our nan used to take us to which still had the same wizened old man running it and the sweet shop by or school we always went to which looked exactly the same – the couple working in there even remembered us. It was rather strange to tread down an old, familiar road and see so many things I still recognised and just as many which I didn’t. If I were going to explain it with an analogy, I’d say that even though Honor Oak has clearly gotten older, the boob-job and botox have ensured that some things have stayed exactly where they were.
The reason I tell you this, is that walking around the West End the other day reminded me of that experience. There are some theatres there which are comfortingly familiar sights with shows that are permanently fixed while others seem to be housing new productions every time I’m back there. This is no new thing but it raised the question with me: is this a good or bad thing?
Even by general standards, there have been a lot of show closures over the last year. Musicals like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Lend Me A Tenor, Love Story and, most recently, Crazy For You closed early with an average of a six-month run, in comparison to other more commercial shows like Wicked and We Will Rock You which have both exceeded the five-year mark. There are really very few shows which enjoy a prolonged West End stay and the concern is that this high turnover may generate a perceived image of instability and low-quality productions. This is of course, untrue. There are many reasons that can be attributed to closing a show: the current economical climate, low ticket sales, unfamiliarity for the audience to name a few. This is just the reality of theatre life, but from the outside it can paint a very different picture. The problem with that is that it creates a knock-on effect. The biggest one I’ve noticed is this growing belief that anything new and different can’t survive, and they have a point. It’s always been difficult for new writing to find a platform and although support for this area is steadily gaining momentum with the emergence of some exceptional writers/shows, it’s still a path that is filled with barriers. People are being a lot more careful where they spend their money right now and faced with a choice between a show based on a film/featuring existing music they know and love or a show they know nothing about, it’s inevitable that many will go for the former option. Ghost The Musical and Matilda were the most successful of all the shows to open in the West End in 2011 and, taking nothing away from the brilliant creative teams and casts, the fact that they were very popular and well-known in their prior film/book form certainly had a lot to do with that. Is it any wonder then that these types of shows are the ones which are being brought into the West End over the altogether ‘riskier’ alternative of new, unknown work? Until there is a little more faith in the longevity of less commercial shows, this is the way it’s going to be.
Looking at the opposite side of the coin however, change is no bad thing. It keeps things fresh and prevents the West End from stagnating in a frozen pool of time. Variety is ‘the spice of life’ and it is one of the best qualities of theatre-going – I know I certainly don’t want to see the same shows on a repetitive loop, no matter how outstanding they may be. New shows draw in new people and create a continuous buzz of excitement about the West End. If we had a consistent repertoire of shows on our books, the general theatre-going population would quickly tire of them and once again ticket sales and audience attendance would drop and the industry would find itself in a dire pickle of a situation. No, change is vital to ensure a healthy future for the industry; it must continue to evolve and grow if it is going to remain the hub of cultural activity that it is.
Of course, we can’t overlook the importance of a long-lasting popular show though. There are no two shows which do more for the West End than Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera and they happen to be its longest-running productions. They play to full houses on a regular basis and are still the number one stop for tourists – their 25th Anniversary celebrations should be proof enough alone of just how beloved they are by theatre fans. The revenue they generate is an indispensable asset and out of every show currently playing in the West End, the loss that would hurt it the most would be theirs.
So what is the answer? As with most things in life, it’s got to be about balance. There has to be change for our West End to keep moving forward, but too much change can cause it to go backwards instead. Shows are going to close, always have and always will. It is no reflection on the quality of the industry. There are both negative and positive intonations attached to that, but as long as there is support out there for the entire cycle of theatre and people are willing to give every type of production a chance, I think London’s West End will be just fine. And just like our visit to the ghost of childhoods past, I can find comfort in the memories of the familiar, but embrace the chance to explore the new.
By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)