Is Theatre Killing Theatre?

Is the theatre its own worst enemy? Is it the engine of its own destruction?

Let me explain what I mean. We love the cinema. We go most weeks, and most weeks we come away feeling well entertained, even inspired. We have a pretty high hit rate: I keep a note of the films we see and score them out of 10 – this year we have awarded several 9s and a couple of 10s. The last film to score less than 5 was Guy Ritchie’s execrable King Arthur over a year ago. (Admittedly, that was so bad we had to rush home and watch the Antoine Fuqua / Clive Owen version just to remind ourselves what good looks like, but failing once a year at a cost of about £25 I can accept.)

Going to the cinema can even be an "event". In the Spring we caught the first showing of Avengers, Infinity War in Barbados. With the assembled "Marvel fans of Barbados" this was not unlike a good Panto – applause for the heroes and cameos, boos for the villains, mass cheers and gasps in all the right places. Hilarious. We also went to the Dambusters 75th Anniversary event, with a great introduction broadcast live from the Royal Albert Hall, followed by a beautifully cleaned up restoration of the film. Again, wonderful.

But surely, it must be even more magical seeing great actors in person on the stage? Maybe, but our practical experience varies. For a start, you don’t always get to see the names you expect. Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hollander, John Lithgow and Keeley Hawes are just some famous actors we paid to see on stage, and didn’t due to last-minute cast changes. We did get to see F Murray Abraham in The Mentor. He was fine, but the play was only about an hour long, and a load of introspective b*****s. We came away feeling somewhat short-changed.

Even more disappointing: Robert Powell and Lisa Goddard in Sherlock Holmes – The Final Curtain. Now we saw Robert Powell play Sherlock Holmes once before, in the hilarious Sherlock Holmes The Musical, so we had a not unreasonable expectation of being entertained again in like style. Sadly not. The new play is a dark, grim, rambling, soul searching piece with neither action nor humour. The plot, as much as there is one, centres around Mary Morstan/Watson turning out to be Moriarty’s sister, which raises a question, not well answered, about why she waits 30 years to attempt to have her revenge. It runs for about 40 minutes each act, which is a relief given the poor writing, but poor value for money in any event. To add injury to insult this was our first visit to the Rose Theatre in Kingston, which is cramped, dark, poorly ventilated and with a poor view from about 20% of the seats. There’s a reason why round Tudor theatres were replaced by square or horse-shoe shaped ones…

Now we really enjoy the theatre, with the right content. There are some stalwarts: the local pantomimes, and musicals with high production values. (For example the current West End revival of Chess is absolutely superb, but good seats, travel and a meal beforehand are going to cost around £200 a head.) It’s also perfectly possible for theatre, even with a budget production, to hit all the spots. A few months ago we saw David Haig’s Pressure, a delightful play about both the mechanics and the personal dynamics of the D Day weather forecasts. It was educational, telling an important true story which deserves exposure, enthralling (we know the final score, but not how close it came), and entertaining – laugh out loud funny in the right places.

The trouble is that while we seem to be seeing more we enjoy on both the small and silver screens, it seems to be more and more difficult to find genuine entertainment on stage. The tendency towards a focus on grim introspection seems to be catching. For years one of our favourite theatres, The Orange Tree in Richmond, mixed into its programme both unusual subjects (the story of Gerald Bull and the Iraqi Super Gun) and innovative entertainment (French farces in the round, with sound effects instead of the usual multiple doors). However for the last couple of seasons the fayre has been endless relationship dramas, and nothing has appealed.

It’s generally a challenge, and discouraging when the cost of a night at the theatre is so expensive. Disappointment might be better managed if theatres were obliged to be more truthful in describing their repertoire: obliged to use words like "grim", "gloomy" and "introspective" where appropriate, and forbidden to use the word "comedy" unless it’s actually funny. However I suspect a challenge under the Trades Descriptions Act might be tricky…

This leaves us going less and less frequently to the theatre, and seeking other forms of entertainment instead. I know we’re far from alone – very few of our friends go even as often as we do. Oh well, there’s always the flicks.

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