Once a month, our theatre editor Chris Hislop analyses a recent theatre news story - researching and breaking down what has happened, why it's happened, and what it means for the industry. From West End scandals to Fringe frisson, come here to find out what's happening Behind the Scenes.
It seems that everyone knows now - The King's Speech, the West End version of the Oscar-winning movie, will be closing early - very early. After only 8 weeks, the West End run of the show will be ending on May 12th, and this after a bombastic opening in Guildford and very successful national tour. The critics loved it (including us) after the London opening. Surely I'm not the only person asking: what went wrong?
Well, there are a number of theories floating around. The producers think it's all tied up with the film version, claiming that they wanted to produce the show two years ago but "the film came along and blocked its path," and that they "believed that enough time had passed between the film and our opening. This was clearly not the case."
But is it really that simple? Sure, Colin Firth's turn as George VI does have many clear advantages over the stage adaptation: it's cheaper and easier to see, it's won international awards, and the source material arguably lends itself to an intimate film over a collection of scenes, often featuring just two characters, on a large West End stage. There are plenty of West End shows with film equivalents (Chicago, Les Mis, The Ladykillers), but very few of them were nominated for 12 Oscars. It does make the film seem like an obvious root cause, but life isn't that simple; I doubt there is one conclusive reason why something fails quite so spectacularly to make a West End impact.
First of all, we have the question we're all trying to avoid: is the recession finally hitting the West End? For the past eight years the Society of London Theatres has been very quick to announce that the West End is still booming, but is this the year that sees the downturn really bite? The papers are reporting that we've definitely entered the double-dip - is this the year that the West End is forced to tighten its belt? Will we see more shows closing early? Numbers certainly seem to be down across plenty of new shows - why else would tickets for Long Day's Journey Into the Night be so cheap? I think there's also a link here to the touting problem - with touts buying and selling more and more West End tickets, people are forced to spend more and more money to see the top shows - which, if people are spending less on theatre overall, will see shows that are having trouble getting audiences in be forced to close much earlier than before.
On a side note - the problems with West End touts seems to be getting completely out of hand. The Guardian Theatre Blog reports that the National Theatre stopped a £70,000 (!!!) block-booking for One Man Two Guvnors and that tickets for some of London's most popular shows are going for over £150. Now, if the government really do stop people from giving charitably to the arts, that might be how much theatre tickets will cost soon, but in the meantime this has to stop. There's no reason to keeping tout a legal practice, and while the West End needn't quite go down the Glastonbury route, with photo-ID pictures and pre-purchase registration, it would make sense to me that some slight security measures would go a long way to stamping this problem out.
While this is a big issue, it certainly won't on its own have led to the show closing early - it will only have exacerbated the issue. So why else would The King's Speech be closing so early? There's the celebrity actor argument - shows on the West End often employ a bigger-name actor in the hope of attracting a non-theatrical audience. This is not purely a marketing ploy - there's often a reason celebrity actors are celebrities, and the West End often (if not always) casts a big name with good reason to be so highly respected - see Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton in Sweeney Todd, or Lindsay Duncan's well-received turn in Hay Fever. However respected The King's Speech cast is, they aren't necessarily bringing that great a 'celebrity' factor - Charles Edwards is best known for TV roles and a bit part in Batman Begins, while I will always remember Jonathan Hyde as Brunel in Titanic... but that's about it.
Finally, there's the contentious question of straight drama on the West End - traditionally less well-received than the comedies and musicals that the punters race to, it's always been an uphill struggle for serious plays in some of the more commercially driven venues. With a recent push for more plays over musicals on the West End, this may be the beginnings of a populist backlash - although it would need more research (and column inches) to conclusively state whether this old beast is rearing its ugly head once again.
Either way, The King's Speech is dead in the water, at around the time that the well-received Abigail's Party revival will be transferring to Wyndham's from the Menier Chocolate Factory. Whether it can do well in what may turn out to be one of the harsher years the West End has faced remains to be seen!