All the world’s a stage...but sometimes we forget just how many performance spaces, studios and theatrical venues make up this gigantic stage and how many millions of players there are, fighting tooth and nail to tread the boards. In this column, David Richards opens your eyes and shows you that there is a life outside the West End. Yes, these big scale productions have the budget and the time, but taking a look at fringe theatre over the last few years proves what true grit, originality and creativity can muster on The Exploding Fringe.
It’s true; the West End has treated us to some wonderful, impressive, spectacular and varied theatre over the years, and why not? It is, after all, a major asset to Britain, let alone London, drawing in tourists from all over the world as well as entertaining an ever-growing theatre-going audience. The West End has the budget and facilities to provide a reliable and constant source of amusement, and for this we are very fortunate.
It is no surprise that this flashy, colourful and attractive scene is so popular and exceedingly well-known. It deserves to be. The West End does, however, seem to be on an unnecessary pedestal. There is a massive amount of fringe theatre going on all over London and beyond which may not have the budget or facilities, but is not stunted by it.
Quite often people assume that a West End production must be of a higher standard than a fringe show. A West End show can often afford flashy gimmicks and spectacles that the fringe cannot, but it is for this reason that fringe work is forced to be thoroughly original and creative in order to make their show something special.
A low (or even no) budget show simply must find a way around expense. Two of the most powerful pieces of theatre I saw last year were Bernarda Alba at The Union and Parade at The Southwark Playhouse. The Union is a very intimate space which has proven its versatility. The company of Bernarda Alba decided to have only a few chairs as the bulk of their set. This meant that the space was relatively bare, but with such strong and passionate performances, it did not matter. The production really was stripped down to the raw subject matter rather than being elaborately decorated. Yes - sometimes it is befitting to have a thoroughly detailed set, but the fact that this production was unable to do this did not matter and did not affect the portrayal of the story.
Similarly, in The Vault space at the Southwark Playhouse, Parade was set in traverse (the audience either side of a long thin performance space) with higher platforms either end; there was no permanent set in the centre of the space, but the cast brought whatever set and props they needed into the performance with them. At the hanging - a rather tricky moment - they decided to reveal a large picture of the actual Leo Frank hanging. Although they could not necessarily show a physical portrayal, what they did was extremely powerful and had a sharp effect on their audience. Again, lack of budget did not prevent the company from putting on an extremely moving, talked about, successful and sell-out production.
"The energy and ambition of fringe theatre can sometimes leave you reeling." said Charles Spencer when reviewing Parade in The Telegraph; "With a cast of 15 actors and a seven-piece band, it’s a hugely ambitious undertaking for such a small venue, and I don’t suppose anyone involved is receiving much more than expenses, if that. Yet this is one of those evenings when you can feel the whole audience becoming increasingly enthralled."
I’m not saying that budget theatre is in fact better, but that actually, low-cost theatre has the potential to be just as creative and powerfully entertaining as a West End production, as long as that there is a good cast and a willing, open-minded audience participating.
Many people would also believe that actors employed in West End productions are more talented than those employed by fringe. Again, this is not necessarily the case. Yes, many, many actors in the West End are at their peaks, providing thoroughly enjoyable and masterful performances. However, according to the National Council for Drama Training, there are twenty one accredited courses in the U.K. Each of these drama schools can have an average of thirty to fifty students graduating a year. At its lowest estimate, this would mean there are an additional six hundred and thirty young professionals flooding into the industry year after year. When you consider that we have yet to mention all the non-accredited drama schools, the lesser-known establishments, universities, and actors who don’t train, it is no wonder that audition panels can afford to be extremely choosy about whom they cast in specific roles. It is fantastic that casting directors have such a wide range to select from, but it does mean that a lot of very talented actors are forced to audition for fringe work, which gives them the chance to do what they love, often to a sensational standard (albeit, sadly, for low or no pay). The talent, consequently, is seen on West End stages and in fringe shows alike!
If you have seen all the shows in town, there’s nothing going on that interests you, or you simply fancy something ‘different’, I urge you to take a closer look at what’s going on around you. You may even find that there’s a delightful little show playing at a small theatre, located above a pub, just around the corner from you that you never even knew existed, and probably, at a very reasonable ticket price! For example, for a light, entertaining and contemporary piece, why not give Carmen at the King's Head Theatre a try? Or for a slightly more gritty, but equally entertaining evening of theatre, it sounds like The Custard Boys at the Tabard Theatre is amusing and moving audiences; both productions running until May 12th 2012.
We are privileged to have The West End in all its glory, but we are equally privileged to have a wealth of wonderful fringe theatre happening all around us.