Not as stable as they look?

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Make no mistake, Bob Blackman’s report for the GLA on the West End and his interview with Cherwell make for alarming reading. The basic conclusion of his 2007 report was that, even in a boom, West End theatres which are too small to put on musicals were unsustainable as operated now, unable to afford necessary rebuilding without a wealthy owner such as Cameron Mackintosh, willing and able to invest in the long term. Interviewed by Cherwell last week, he said that the recession had made some of his suggestions to deal with the problem unviable and predicted that one third of all West End theatres would go bankrupt.

If that were not dramatic enough, his suggested responses will curl the hairs of fiscal conservatives in his own party, the Tories: conversion of bankrupt theatres into either practice halls for London stage schools or charitable trusts which can qualify for government investment, followed by massive investment in these all-but-nationalised theatres as a job creation scheme to boost employment (it’s no secret that automation has cost many jobs backstage recently and there are far more graduates in theatrical skills than jobs). This is in line with government policy: today plans were announced to absorb failing private schools into the state sector as academies. The West End would shift from commercial and profit-driven to state-supported, and this would not necessarily be positive: the queue of people waiting in line to sneer at lowest-common-denominator jukebox musicals are quite right, but these productions don’t cost the people who don’t go to them anything.

State subsidy would, and charitable trusts are both good at lobbying to increase their subsidy and take themselves seriously: what if they put on a succession of pretentious, expensive flops and got the taxpayer to pick up the tab? Long-running productions of musicals are attractive to tourists, who, for better or worse, know what they’re getting before they book: would artier charitable trusts be as good at relieving foreigners of their money for the benefit of UK plc? To counter this, in his interview with Cherwell, Blackman suggested that the charities would have to have ‘big names’ on them to prevent this; the idea of the government appointing its friends to run the West End means nothing good for freedom of speech (though this may be too fearful: the National Theatre on the South Bank is far more willing to take risks on political plays than the West End), and nor would the fact that most of the theatres left standing would likely be controlled by just two men: Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh.

Above all, the result would be a massive increase in state subsidy in theatre during a recession at a time when any available money is being diverted to the Olympics, transport or the government’s insane plan to expand Heathrow: it’s hard to see art galleries and orchestras being too keen on this, and would money really be better spent on commercial theatres than hospitals and railways, even for a long-term return?

There are also problems with Blackman’s analysis. Most notably, he suggested in his interview that owners would probably donate their theatres to charity to lose a worthless asset: why do this when you can run the theatre you own into the ground and ride out the recession? The government would need to stick up the money, and it would not be keen to do so. Just because charitable trusts are eligible for state funds does not mean that they would get any: any money from the state would mean money diverted from elsewhere right now, and it’s hard to see the Arts Council being too keen on discovering that they need to fund 13-odd more theatres as well.

Above all, it is not certain that the recession will destroy the West End: when we contacted Nimax theatres about Blackman’s conclusions they pointed to a report showing that audiences and revenues had risen in 2008, though the fact remains that many tickets are sold at heavy discounts now and most productions make a loss (and the rise is still smaller than the rate of inflation). Whether the 2008 figures are the crest of a wave or proof that the West End can ride out the recession remains to be seen.

Despite this, it is clear that the West End needs to get money from somewhere: a recent restoration of the charitable Royal Court Theatre cost more than all the theatres on Shaftesbury Avenue have made in profit since WWII. So does that leave the state as the only source of it left, and if so, is the West End worth saving? Blackman’s view in his interview with Cherwell was yes; others will disagree.

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