London’s West End is one of the world’s most booming theatre districts, representing the highest level of commercial theatre in the English-speaking world (along with New York’s Broadway). Across the district, often referred to as ‘Theatreland’, there are 39 theatres, with capacities ranging from 100 – 2,286 people, and offering a variety of performances; from plays to pantomimes, musicals to physical theatre – there’s something for everyone. Or so it seems…
Walking between theatres, I find myself looking beyond the grandeur, the lights and arresting signage with great disappointment. Yes – the shows are seamlessly executed. Yes – the talent is undeniable. But I have no inclination to see any of the major, commercial productions on offer.
Looking at the yearly figures of such may be illuminating in establishing the reasoning behind this. In 2015, weekly attendances totaled an average of 283,511, and the average ticket price paid increased from £42.29 – £42.99. Consequently, Society of London Theatre published in their year-end report box office gross revenue of £633,778,537, up 1.6% from 2014.
Most interestingly, though, is that the highest weekly attendance throughout the entire year – of 432,310, no less – was between December 28th and January 3rd. Following the Christmas period, this suggests a broad appeal to families, particularly with young children.
This is reflected in the programming. Amongst the most popular west end shows in 2016, two are Roald Dahl adaptations, previously existing in movie format (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda); adaptations of Disney’s popular classics The Lion King and Aladdin; and Wicked, existing in the world of the childhood staple The Wizard of Oz. Such a lack of diversity makes for a monotonous catalogue, an excuse for audiences to sit mindlessly through the familiar, offering little challenge.
Furthermore, the focus on commerciality seems an integral part of casting – with West End productions juggling between renowned faces from a variety of industries. Currently, Sugababe Jade Ewen has secured the role of Princess Jasmine in Aladdin; Game of Thrones’ Kit Harrington is performing the titular role in Doctor Faustus; and popular comedy actress Sheridan Smith is starring in Funny Girl as Fanny Brice.
This attraction to ‘celebrity’ is a global epidemic, with the up rise of social media closing the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’, resulting in a celebrity endorsement overload. Not a television advert goes by that doesn’t star or feature the voiceover of a well-known celebrity. Take the original X Factor panel of three industry insiders – last year, ¾ of such constituted music and radio stars. Once home to models, the majority of Vogue covers now feature celebrities, with creative director Grace Coddington famously stating “I wouldn’t care if I never saw another celebrity again”.
I’m not calling for a total cull on commercial theatre. I think its great – a novelty, a light relief. I do, however, think that lesser known theatre groups and productions should receive greater recognition for their work. It seems that by using unconventional spaces and non-naturalistic styles, audiences are put-off. Immersive, gallery-esque work – like that of dreamthinkspeak and Julia Bardsley (to name but a few) – can be as, if not more so, effective than the conventional theatre-going experience.
So, when venturing out to the theatre, try to not be drawn in by the bright lights and colours, or the temptation of seeing a familiar face in the flesh. Instead, look for something new and gritty, lesser known (…and often cheaper)! You’ll be surprised by what you find.