Do We Demand Too Much Of The West End?

By Harriet Wilson
Thursday 27 August 2015

When we go to the West End, we expect a spectacle. And, when we're paying well into the hundreds for a ticket, why should we not? We've paid to see helicopters, falling chandeliers, flying people, barricades … But what about shows that don't – can't, even – offer such impressive visuals? Are we pushing away productions that might be incredible, simply because they don't meet our demands for clever tricks?

When taking a look at some of LTD's top shows – that is, some of the most popular in the West End – it becomes clear that nearly all such productions do offer some sort of visual spectacle. Here are some examples:
Miss Saigon: Full-sized helicopter.
Les Miserables: Barricades; rotating stage.
War Horse: Well a horse, for one thing.
The Phantom of the Opera: Falling chandelier; plenty of fire; magic mirror; boat …
Wicked: Flying person on a broom; flying person in a bubble; flying monkeys; huge metal head …
The Lion King: Where do I even start?
The shows I have used as examples here are some of my absolute favourites – I am in no way criticising them. But where are all of the other shows? What happened to the Austen adaptations, the light comedies, the classics? Is the West End lacking in Hardy adaptations because Hardy doesn't suit an epic tone?

It is almost irrefutable that, more and more, a visual feast is being demanded of West End theatres. Attracting audiences to more modest shows is become ever harder. But is that a bad thing? Let's imagine that you have paid £100 for a ticket (and, as discussions about Elf have recently brought to light, tickets are often a lot more expensive than this), £30 for transport, another £30 for food – that comes to £160 for one event, per person. Even if you buy a less expensive ticket (say, £50) use cheaper transport (£20) and bring your own food, you're still spending at least £70 per person.
Having spent the money with which you were supposed to be paying rent, it is only reasonable to expect a lot from your chosen show. It's all very well saying that the West End should be more diverse, but would you want to pay £160 for a show that could just as easily be performed at a local theatre?
This brings us to the question of local theatre. Personally, my favourite theatre is not even in London; it is The Watermill in Newbury, which consistently puts on fantastic productions – with tickets costing somewhere around £10 – £15.
I don't love The Watermill because it's cheap, however; the theatre offers productions of an extraordinarily high standard, and with extremely impressive casting (Gina Beck has recently appeared at The Watermill in Far From The Madding Crowd and, previously, Jodie Prenger in Calamity Jane – to mention only two). Being relatively small (or perhaps 'intimate' is a more flattering term), extremely authentic and, critically, not expensive, this is the sort of theatre where those classics, light comedies, and smaller shows belong.
Perhaps, then, it is okay for the West End to offer only the epic productions; local theatres are getting better and better at providing people with a more diverse range of productions, so the West End doesn't really need to. It could really just be a case of changing the way we see the West End. We are used to seeing it as a hub for theatre of every kind; now, however, would we not be better to rely on the West End for our spectacles, and go to local theatres for everything else?
I am not trying to diminish the West End in any way by saying this: if you want a spectacle (and, who doesn't?), there is no better place to go. I'll never get bored of seeing people fly on stage, or of spectacular staging, or of impressive effects. The West End offers visuals that could not be experienced to the same extent anywhere else in the country. Smaller theatres offer productions that stun you not through those visuals, but through intimacy and authenticity.

And perhaps, after all, neither option is really better than the other.


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Harriet Wilson

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