Whither the West End?

Panic on the streets of London

Apparently the British are not immune to the annual impulse toward running articles pronouncing theater in its death throes. We're quite accustomed to stories about the impossibility of producing trenchant plays on Broadway, the preference for musicals based on film and TV, the need for Hollywood names in the amrquee. In the Guardian, Michael Billington diagnoses similar ailments in the West End. In lowering tones, he writes, "Never in my lifetime has London's West End theatre looked so narrow in its range of choices or so out of touch with contemporary reality. And it is high time the crisis was confronted and a debate launched about what we expect of commercial theatre." But unlike some alarmist cries, Billington does suggest some solutions, a few of which could be applied to American playhouses, although we can only long for the subsidized theaters he attempts top rally:

What the West End needs is a radical makeover, even a minor revolution, in the interests of both quality and variety. I'd like to see Sunday openings, lottery money for the rotting fabric, more imaginative use of the buildings themselves: in particular, pre-show talks, jazz and poetry recitals, stand-up comics in the dead hours before the 7.30pm opening. If the commercial theatre can't beat the subsidised sector, it should, in effect, join it: not only by adopting its practices but by employing its personnel. In the old days, the West End theatre relied on actor-managers to give it body and substance. Now what it needs are director-managers, or even dramatist-impresarios, of proven vision.

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