Chrissie Tiller says cheap ticketing schemes alone will never be the answer to bringing in more diverse audiences.
Last night I sat in a West End Theatre for the first time in a few years: watching Michael Grandage’s revival of his 2001 production of, ‘Privates on Parade’. Reading the profusion of five star reviews the following morning, I recognised the experience I had up in the balcony was very different to the one that had clearly delighted the front rows of the stalls.
How had we come to such different conclusions about the relevance and purpose of this piece of work? It wasn’t as if I was coming to the play uninformed. I know it was written as a farce. I know Peter Nichols, having been in the Combined Services Troops himself, intended to offer us a, “jaundiced account” of post-war colonialism. But what I saw and heard was so far from being the acerbic or politically astute commentary on war, colonialism or politics that most of the critics have claimed I am beginning to wonder whether we were in the same audience.
It may have had something to do with distance from the stage. Russell Beale’s much-admired “gleeful” eye rolling and “conspiratorial winks” were certainly lost on the Gods. As were those “wry nuances”. What we experienced from our dizzy heights was an overlong, mawkish, backward-looking, (need to be in the know) parody of 1940s song and dance numbers. Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Flanagan and Allen, Carmen Miranda. They were all there. Fascinating to note, when it came to costumes, the Malaysian branch of the CST apparently had the kind of budget that most regional theatres would die for even today. Even more extra-ordinary to hear every Russell Beale change being met with more sycophantic whoops than a pantomime dame.
Yes. There were some “darker” moments towards the end of the second half. But revealing that “tarts” have hearts, that “bum boys” (sic) can also be sentient beings or that our armed forays into far off countries are usually a pretext for protecting oil, or in this case rubber, supplies, was hardly groundbreaking; even in 1977. With “maladies d’amour”, unwanted pregnancies and corsets featuring large, maybe the British need for rubber could have been given more comic mileage. But the claim, made by more than one critic that the final “masterstroke” of this “joyous” romp was bringing on the, ever-present, Malaysian servants in suits against a projected image of modern day Singapore, would have astonished even a GCSE drama class. Especially as they had been portrayed all along as what Miss Haverty1 would have called, “downright sly and sneaky” Orientals.
What dispirited me most were suggestions that this was a trailblazer for a season dedicated to bringing in, “new audiences” to (West End) theatre. Maybe it was the public’s enthusiasm for the Queen’s recent Diamond Jubilee that brought it to Grandage’s mind. The original was, after all, written in the same year as the Silver one; although 1977 was also notably the year of National Front marches, Longbridge strikes and the rise of Thatcherism. Maybe it is a “canny” choice for our a-political, anodyne times. What more could what Time Out calls, “a red-blooded Englishman” of an audience want? A few funny jibes at Attlee’s “bumbling” attempts at post-war social justice, a good old giggle at naïve young idealists espousing Marxism and a real deep belly laugh at the “bungling amateurism” of the British armed forces conducting “Operation Starvation”, relocating millions of Malaysians into prison camps and burning their villages.
Maybe it is about time we encouraged those ethnic minorities to stop shuffling in their seats and start enjoying English racist jokes? Or get all those women who want to see their own plays and productions on stage to acknowledge men are just better at writing and directing humour and accept misogyny can actually be quite a laugh – as long as it accurately refects its time?
Or maybe the kind of audiences Grandage’s company are wanting to win over are the ones feeling a little marginalised by endless criticism of their “well-earned” bonuses or severance agreements? Or those who never go to theatre, like our current Cultural Secretary? Both of whom might really enjoy a light-hearted romp through the good old days of Empire before the working classes became so uppity and women, gays and foreigners knew their place.
Sadly, there’s enough research out there to show cheap ticketing schemes on their own will never be the answer to bringing in more diverse audiences: they are mainly taken up by those already in the know. Unless people can see their own lives, concerns, values on stage, or themselves reflected in the audience why would they, or should they, be bothered to engage with what theatre has to offer?
Musical theatre does not have to be bland: it has the capacity to astonish, delight and be ruthless in its mockery of warfare and its injustices. It would be have been wonderful, then, to have seen a new West End company offering its potential “new” audiences something more than the patronising crowd-pleaser I saw on the stage of the Noel Coward theatre on Monday night. “Oh What a Lovely War” it just ain’t.
1 Miss Haverty, Notre Dame Grammar School, Leeds. Late 1960s