Musicals are having an exceptional moment – but classic plays are vanishing from UK stages

·3-min read

David Hare has argued this week that musicals are strangling the growth of straight plays in the West End. I have some sympathy with his point, but it is one that could have been made anytime in the past two decades, during which there has never been less than 25 tune-and-toe shows in the commercial sector. What is curious is Hare’s timing, since right now three London theatres traditionally associated with straight plays happen to be housing quite exceptional musicals.

Hare seizes on Oklahoma!’s occupation of the beautiful Wyndham’s theatre. Director Daniel Fish, however, has done precisely what the best directors of classic plays have been doing for ages: he gives us a fresh perspective on a familiar work without (well, almost without) altering the text. Instead of the usual gung-ho hymn to rural America, we get a dark, disturbing study of the victimisation of the outsider – in this case Jud Fry – by a small, self-regarding community.

Nicholas Hytner’s production of Guys and Dolls at the Bridge theatre, meanwhile, equally justifies the colonisation of a space usually reserved for plays. His immersive staging turns Damon Runyon’s colourful fable into a restless urban kaleidoscope. Bunny Christie’s set even matches the wit of Frank Loesser’s lyrics and Abe Burrows’s book: when, for instance, the perennially engaged Miss Adelaide tries to decide whether or not to ditch her beau, the neon-lit street signs dazzlingly switch between Walk and Don’t Walk.

Even if I have a few qualifications about Rebecca Frecknall’s production of Cabaret at the Playhouse – which misses the point that the Emcee should only gradually turn from an ingratiating host (“Wilkommen!”) into a grotesque symbol of nazism – it too offers an invigoratingly original take on a classic show.

Where I do agree with Hare is in his hunger for new work. But the future is not entirely bleak. Plays by Jack Thorne, James Graham and Deborah Bruce are about to open at the National. Peter Morgan’s magnificent Patriots, dealing with the decline of a Russian oligarch and the rise of Vladimir Putin, shortly transfers from the Almeida to the West End. And, while we eagerly await the arrival of A Little Life at the Harold Pinter theatre, there are new plays in prospect from Jack Thorne (again) at the Donmar, Ryan Calais Cameron at the Kiln and Timberlake Wertenbaker at Jermyn Street. And this is just in London.

My real concern, in viewing the ecology of British theatre, is the virtual disappearance of the classics both in London and the regions. Looking at a theatre magazine for September 1966, I noticed that you could find plays by Shakespeare, Congreve, Pinero and O’Casey at the Old Vic; European work by Dürrenmatt, Duras and Mrożek at the Aldwych; Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi at the Royal Court; and plays by Shaw and Wilde in the West End. Today, that looks like untold riches. While David Hare is worried about the unhealthy dominance of the musical, I am even more concerned about the idea of a theatre cut off from its past and the best of contemporary Europe.