Does London have a category of theatre similar to "Off-Broadway"? I suppose you could argue that any show that doesn't originate in the commercial West End qualifies, except that most plays that begin in the several Arts Council-subsidised companies (whether London-based or regional) almost always have limited runs. So the idea of an Off-Broadway production as a commercial one with a smaller risk attached is not really terribly common here. Should a play at Hampstead, Hammersmith or Chelsea, for example, hit pay-dirt, it would probably transfer to the one of the all-too-many available West End venues, rather than soldier on in its début house.
It's all a question of business models, not aesthetics. Which means a recession is a good time to have a new hit play. Box office takings seem still to be rising, as an evening at the theatre looks to be a bargain compared, for example, to eating out in a chic London restaurant. And though there don't seem to be a lot of dark theatres just now, there's always one ready to receive a transfer.
But the play's got to be better than Richard Bean's "Harvest," a co-production with the Royal Court Theatre that I saw at the Oxford Playhouse. (Mr. Bean has another new play, "England People Very Nice" opening tonight at the National.) I was sorry that this dramatised history of a single English farm from WWI to the present day didn't quite work. First, because the documentary elements of the play are vitally important, touching as they do on all the questions raised by Michael Pollan (and me too, wearing another hat) about how we nourish ourselves; and second, because this should have been a milestone in the Oxford Playhouse returning to being a producing house as well as a receiving one. When I'm in the country, this is my local theatre, so of course I'm cheering for them.
You'd never believe that anyone could make a play out of the decision to go over from mixed arable to pig farming, but Mr. Bean has done his best to construct some memorable characters from this combination of "The Archers" (a daily BBC radio agricultural soap opera that many, including my household, are addicted to) and Cold Comfort Farm. And he's succeeded in writing some intrinsically dramatic incidents; but the overall Edna Ferber/down-the-generations frame needs a little more shaping.
There's absolutely no problem about stagecraft at the Hampstead Theatre, where its 50 Years celebrations kicked off with Noel Coward's perfectly constructed (though at times one is tempted to say "perfectly confected") "Private Lives." While I overheard somebody in the first-night audience, which was heavy with thesps, insist that "Darling, I've never seen a better Amanda" than Claire Price, I don't think one has to go quite that far to make it clear that the production is very enjoyable indeed. Though it was a slight miscall, I thought, when the performance of the end of the balcony scene had to be interrupted (because the smoke alarms had been triggered), to backtrack to dialogue and jokes we'd already heard. This is my London local, and I've recently discovered a couple of good, reasonably priced post-show restaurants only steps away from what is definitely London's most comfortable auditorium; so I'm hugely looking forward to the rest of Hampstead's season.
On the other hand, for me Hammersmith is a serious schlep. But if neither "Harvest" nor the Coward is likely to get a West-End transfer, I'd be surprised if the Hammersmith Lyric's current show doesn't end up playing in the West End for a long time after its Hammersmith run ends on March 14. Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik's unlikely musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind's 1891 "Spring Awakening" comes to London festooned with awards. The gimmick is that the play is set (and costumed) in late-19th century Germany, but its mostly adolescent characters (there are two adults, who play all the grown-up roles - and very successfully too) produce hand-held mikes from inside their jackets when they sing their R& B songs. Some of these are worth a second listen; but that's not the point, which is that the songs give the audience direct access to the characters' teen-age angst. There hasn't been too much prettifying of the plot, and there's enough stage masturbation, sado-masochism and all the rest to annoy today's puritans as much as it did those of the not-so gay 90s.
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