Features West End & Central Published 6 November 2018

If we stormed the West End…

We dreamed a dream: Exeunt's writers imagine a takeover of London's creakiest, most storied theatres.
Exeunt Staff

Les Miserables in the West End. Photo: Steve Collis (via wikimedia commons)

In the heart of London, there’s a magical land where theatre tickets go for £100+, where shows run for decades or half-centuries in increasingly creaky sets, where audience members squeeze into tiny red velvet seats and drop £15 on a plastic goblet of Prosecco. This is the West End, and for a large proportion of the population, it’s what theatre IS. A tiny handful of banner shows define people’s first encounter with theatre, and the theatres that house them are arguably more visible and navigable than the many many spaces doing more subversive and experimental things. But what would you do with them if they magically became yours to programme, take over, or raze to the ground? We asked Exeunt’s writers to imagine a better (or at least a different) way…

The party
If we are going to do this I imagine it happens something like this – we buy very cheap standing tickets to a fairly nondescript but nonetheless persistent show (Mousetrap? Probably Mousetrap). Then once we are near, we arm ourselves with all the things we love – smashed guitars, face paint, wrecking balls, pints and pints and pints, the dresses from It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, unicycles, ripped up play texts. We look a mess but we are red in the face and sweating. Someone plays a trumpet nearby. We don’t rip up the theatre because it is an objectively beautiful building and that might feel a bit wrong, but instead we give everyone Chris Brett Bailey masks and dress them up in the outfits from our favourite shows. We kill the lights. Someone gets out these huge speakers and we have a massive dance party. The actors are very confused, but soon join in. It doesn’t solve anything but it feels good, just for a moment. (Eve Allin)

No-frills theatre
Sometimes I remember that in the eyes of many, theatre is essentially a luxury product. And then I do a full-body shudder of horror. The West End has won status as a kind of hyper-capitalist financial success story, lauded by unpleasant politicians as an example of what the entire arts scene could and should be like. It’s a place where success is measured in ticket sales, where prices are as high as the market can stand, where bland, uncontroversial work is staged because producers think it will sell, where scalability is king and the only thing determining whether a show should still be on is whether it’s still popular. I am not necessarily anti-populism. But what if we made it true populism. Pass an edict capping the maximum ticket price at £15, with relevant concessions so literally everyone can afford to go. Theatre will have to change to accommodate these new conditions – if it means less spangles, so be it. Install voting booths letting everyone pick what they think belongs there and let furious fan campaigns simmer online and in the streets. Open theatre spaces during the day, put creches on their stages and libraries in their bars and queer dive bars in their basements. And somewhere in all of this I hope there will be a space for Fun Home, because the day its set gets scrapped is the day my faith in theatre dies. (Alice Saville)  

The all day cafe
I’d give one of the oldest, creakiest, never-before renovated West End theatres to a company like Secret Theatre (R.I.P.) or Barrel Organ or a maker like Chris Brett Bailey and ask them to make shows for anywhere but the proscenium arch stage (which we would convert into an extremely cheap greasy spoon which would be open 24/7). (Ava Wong Davies)

The National Takeover
The West End transfer is the sparkly-beaked albatross hanging unattractively around the neck of the theatre industry. But before I start presenting my 100,000 word paper on ‘All the Many, Many Problems with Seeing the West-End Transfer as the Pinnacle of Success for Shows and Theatres when When We All Know the West End Marketing Model Favours a Very Particular Type of (normally boring OWM) Plays’ [catchy title, I know. Unsurprisingly, tickets are still available for my inaugural performance so book soon, theatre kids], I’ll offer a solution instead. Pushing aside the potentially ‘problematic’ nature of forced seizure and redistribution of property (*cough*), I vouch for vacating all major West End theatres and allocating one each to the best theatres inside and outside of London. So, for example, the NT would have control of the Gielgud, the Bush would get the Piccadilly, the Bristol Old Vic could camp out in Wyndham’s etc etc (arguments over specific venues can happen later), thus allowing each venue to simply programme for the West End whatever they want without adhering to existing ‘rules’ about what constitutes a West End-type production. In turn it would raise the profiles of existing theatres at their off-West End addresses among tourists and non-regular theatregoers who might find themselves in Leicester Square at a loose end, but not normally make it to Shepherd’s Bush. Failing that, the Young Vic’s recently-announced season looked pretty class, so we could just give over the entirety of Shaftesbury Ave to Kwame Kwei-Armah for a year and reap the benefits? (Rosemary Waugh)

A Voyage of Discovery
As a musicals-loving kid who grew up in what I perceived to be the middle of nowhere (Oregon), I have a lot of empathy for the desire to come to the West End and see the live version of the cast recording you’ve been listening to on repeat and performing one-woman versions of in the shower. When you live in London and see them creaking along, retrograde and obviously inferior to the smaller and newer shows you see every week, it’s so easy to be dismissive, and assume people only flock to those shows out of ease and ignorance. Maybe some people do! And for others, it’s sincere love for shows that are easily discovered and accessed through cast recordings, clips online, and passionate communities of fellow fans.

Still, I’ve heard people in the US complain that, despite its unprecedented success, Hamilton didn’t create theatre fans, it just created Hamilton fans. So what can we do to bridge the gap? My reimagined West End would work a little more like the recommendations at the end of a YouTube video, pointing viewers to other performances based on themes, writers, directors– whatever. If they’re visiting from out of town, maybe an email could point them to similar options in their own area. Maybe they’d even get a discount. If we can look at the West End as the simplest gateway to a wider ecosystem– and if we can help people navigate the intimidating network of theatres with ever-shifting schedules and different booking systems and badly-designed websites and opaque marketing copy– then I suspect a lot of people who have just had their mind blown by that falling chandelier that they, unlike us, have never seen before would be very happy to take those next steps. (Hailey Bachrach)

Scrap Everything
I think I’d weirdly scrap everything and start again, ideally with runs of a couple of months rather than longer and literary departments in West End theatres, maybe buddying up with a non-WE theatre for a year to see what partnerships grow and the opportunities shared each way. My exception would weirdly be The Woman in Black, because as a kid in Year 10 or 11 seeing that fucking terrified me bodily to the extent we were laughingly hysterical on the bus back and it also seemed more inventive than anything I’d ever seen before, never mind the fact that it’d been on for donkey’s. I think other people have had that experience with it too. It’s a funny one, but I’d keep it as a little hallowed patch of ground.

One other exception, actually (haven’t seen Misty yet, soon to be rectified): I’d have The Jungle run longer and try to make the ticket prices as accessible as possible. I’d try to fund Good Chance doing a similar project as they’re currently doing for migrants in Paris in London too, and I’d put Ben Turner in everything once The Jungle was done or if he wanted a change.

Other people have probably spoken about equality in programming so I won’t, for once. How about hanging the Black Lives Matter and the gay pride flags outside every theatre though? Because the Young Vic is right in doing that and that kind of explicit political signalling could do with being spread to more theatre including the WE. Also Quentin Letts is barred from every theatre lol. (Frey Kwa Hawking)

More Paperwork
If I had a West End theatre to myself, I’d probably install some sort of Kafkaesque promenade office environment in which people would have to uncover the existential meaning of the menial but computer-based tasks that they’re asked to do. It would be like a shit Drowned Man, everything in beige and a terrible canteen that sells egg sandwiches. Can you tell I’m fighting my way through lots of paperwork at the moment? (Annegret Marten)

Bryony Kimmings
It’s pretty clear to me: if there’s any experimental theatre-maker who could hold a 1000-seater playhouse full of punters in the palm of their hand, it’s Bryony Kimmings. For one thing, she’s had amazing success making the step up to mid-scale theatres with A Pacifist’s Guide to the War On Cancer and I’m a Phoenix, Bitch. There are few other artists who can pair performance art credentials with broad commercial appeal, but Kimmings is one of a kind – she’s a limited company after all, and a brand that I could totally see West End audiences buying into. (Ben Kulvichit)

More Shit on Ice

I’m going to take a guess that there’s already a fair bit of bloody anarchy in your submissions so I won’t waste breath on why I’m setting the Mousetrap stage on fire, forcing the opera house to sell tickets at viable prices so I can actually see Don Giovanni (and no, fuck your like 2% ten quid tickets to sit on the floor lazy nod to accessibility. Just admit you’re elitist wankers and let us all move on with our lives) and reorganizing the Royal Court bar so I can get my warm wine without feeling like I’m in a John Lewis sale scrum.

No, here’s what I want*
*well, what I want in context of it also has to sell to tourists etc

1. A properly good dining theatre. Dinner and a show, all inclusive, fair price ticket. Fancy tables like at Crazy Coqs but full on evening of deliciousness onstage and on my plate.

2. More shit on ice. Ibsen on ice. Mamma Mia on ice. Sarah Kane on ice. I’m here for it. Imagine the Palace theatre filled with an ice rink. Ice is an under-exploited medium that could really challenge directors to step up their game. Extra points if actors can’t skate.

3. Starlight Express. (Deadly serious. Bloody love Starlight Express)
(Francesca Peschier)

A Durational Reading Spectacular
Forget Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (which is spectacle over substance and massively overrated, don’t @ me). What the West End needs is a durational reading of all 7 Harry Potter books (running time 60 hours). Stephen Fry has to star in it because as far as I am concerned as the proud of owner of the complete Harry Potter audiobook, he is the one true reader of Harry Potter and anyone who pronounces the spells differently is wrong. And Christopher Brett Bailey can read the boring bits very fast. And RashDash can do some dance interpretations. And Sh!t theatre can host a singalong section. And the entire audience has to come in costume. Ok this is getting pretty spectacular. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, we’re coming for you. (Hannah Greenstreet)

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