Complaints abound that West End theatres are clogged with musicals and awash with revivals, leaving stimulating new plays and aspiring playwrights, out in the cold. But producers face a real financial dilemma. Theatre-goers seem to have a never-ending thirst for musicals which continue to dominate London's theatreland. New plays are also more likely to flop at the box office, and the riskiest dramas to produce are those by unknown playwrights. So, how do you get more new plays into the West End?
Well, producer Sonia Friedman and TV company, Channel 4, have got their thinking caps on and come up with a brave and novel plan. Channel 4 have aired a TV programme called 'The Play's The Thing' which has been a kind of on-going competition to find a new play from an un-produced playwright - the ultimate prize being that the winner's play would be produced in the West End. Over 4 episodes, 2000 hopeful playwrights have had their scripts scrutinised, and these have been whittled down to just one which is now on offer at the New Ambassadors, rather fittingly right next door to the long-running 'Mousetrap'.
The episode of the TV programme which I caught last Monday was disappointing. Lacklustre, pedestrian and lacking real entertainment value, I struggled to keep awake. One aspect of the programme though did manage to rouse my interest and anger for a moment or two. During the programme, Friedman encouraged one of the aspiring playwrights to believe that he was the likely winner, and one could only feel immense sympathy when his dreams were shattered, and the prize given instead to Kate Betts and her play 'On The Third Day'.
To have a new play produced in the West End really is the 'stuff of dreams', and must be an enormously exhilarating feeling for Kate Betts. At the same time, it's hard not to feel that it's all rather artificial and arbitrary - a bit like a lottery. One wonders whether all the plays received a fair reading. And is it the best way to encourage new talent to tantalise them with such rich rewards? Whatever the merits of the approach, this new drama is now playing to audiences.
Sonia Friedman claimed in the TV programme that she had a mere 4 weeks to produce the play. Since the final documentary isn't due to be screened until tomorrow evening, we don't yet know how pre-production went and what happened in rehearsal. However, if the production team really have had just 4 weeks to prepare, then it's much to their credit. In particular, the plot requires diverse locations covering a flat in Streatham, the caverns of Wales, a church and a planetarium. The inventive production team have risen admirably to the challenge, and Mark Thompson's innovative design does creditable justice to this new theatrical endeavour.
'On The Third Day' is about Claire and her brother Robbie, whose parents died when they were young children. Claire (played by Maxine Peake) is now an aspiring presenter in a planetarium, while her estranged brother (Tom McKay) is employed guiding people through underground caverns in Wales.
We first encounter the adult Claire when she brings a stranger, Mike, back to her flat in the hope of having sex with him. She's a naive and inexperienced lover who gets right down to basics and tells Mike that she 'has condoms'. But rather than jumping straight into bed with her as most full-blooded, binge-drinking laddish types might, Mike is reluctant, and has something important to tell her - wait for it - he's Jesus Christ! Not, you understand, someone simply called Jesus Christ, but the one-and-only Jesus Christ, ie the Son Of God variety.
My 'wince' muscles were working overtime when I heard Mike say he was Christ! Don't get me wrong. I am happy to defend everyone's right to practice their religion so long as it does not impinge on anyone else's rights to practice their religion, or not to practice any religion, as the case may be. But the prospect of Christ reappearing in Streatham, South London in 2006 is stretching credibility for the vast majority of the population. Indeed, it might aptly be described as the stuff of ill-conceived school plays!
To her credit, Kate Betts works this situation and successfully milks it for (suitably reverential) humour, which the audience responded to - in fact, they laughed quite a lot. For example, when Mike is asked about his father, he says 'he's a bit strict', and when he's asked what his father does for a living, Mike says 'he's a consultant'. And along the way, we have humorous references to the feeding of the 5,000 as Mike is cooking dinner, so that the initial wince-inducing introduction of Christ was subsequently dealt with rather well, until ... In a later scene, Claire ends up washing Mike's feet - ostensibly because he's swapped shoes with a beggar and the 'new' shoes he's acquired are pinching. But the washing of the feet scene is done straight, it's not treated as a joke. Thus it ends up being very corny (pun very much intended) simply because it's contrived and embarrassing.
There's another embarrassing scene where Mike is talking to his 'Father'. Mike, i.e. Christ, is fed up having to do good all the time, and forsaking his own needs and desires in order to help others. I have no idea what this was trying to tell us. Unless, that is, Kate Betts has a hot-line to Christ who's been pouring his heart out to her over a glass of sherry, or a nice cup of Darjeeling on her terrace.
Without the foot-washing episode and the scene with Mike talking to God, there would have been hope for this play, but it would have meant ending it all rather earlier than it eventually did. What Betts needed to do was to leave the door ajar as to whether Mike was Christ or not. That way, the audience could have made up their own minds. But she chose to go the whole hog to force us to believe this was indeed Christ reincarnated, and that immediately left a considerable number of the responsive and attentive audience, like so many new plays, out in the cold. And on that basis, it failed.
There are some other devices which could easily have been amended making the play more appealing as well as more interesting, without dropping the role of Christ. For example, Mike did not have to look like Jesus. His longish dark hair and vague beard could easily have been changed. It's not necessary to scream things from the rooftops to make audiences understand something - they have minds after all - but in Betts' hands, we weren't allowed to do much thinking.
In the acting department, Paul Hilton as Mike provided a creditable and professional performance as Mike, aka Jesus, though Betts' lines make him an interfering busy-body who would be better advised to tread a more sensitive and diplomatic path in his dealings with humans. But Maxine Peake's Claire didn't impress me because I was unsure about her character, particularly after brother Robbie (played by Tom McKay) claimed that she was overbearing and bossy - she hadn't really appeared so at any time during the play. This highlighted several inconsistencies in Betts' characterisations which I found confusing. And occasional glitches in timing hinted that the cast were a little under-rehearsed, though this didn't seem the case with the child actors, who were well-schooled and admirably directed.
The resolution to this piece where Mike tries to patch-up the differences between Claire and Robbie at Claire's birthday celebrations in a restaurant, is wholly unconvincing. This is because it finally happens in a flash, so much so that the audience weren't really sure that the play had ended. And the table used for the restaurant scene - laid out in the manner of that used for the 'Last Supper' - once again heightened the 'wince factor' .
There's no doubt that Kate Betts has ideas, is willing to take risks and has a good sense of humour. But she was on a loser from the moment she chose to convince us that Mike was Christ, and I'm surprised that, along the way, one of the professionals working with her didn't point her in a different direction that would have kept her basic ideas in tact, without making the play intermittently corny and embarrassing. That said, it wasn't a catastrophe. It largely kept the audience's attention thanks to some dynamic directorial pacing from Robert Delamere, as well as Jon Driscoll's excellent projections. But if the 'Play's The Thing' is to find a yearly slot in the TV schedules and the West End calendar, Sonia Friedman and her team will have to do better in future to select something more worthy of the glory that the West End provides.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Pretentious, obscure load of nonsense ." PAUL TAYLOR for THYE INDEPENDENT says, "I couldn't really believe a word, even while recognising the sincerity of the writing." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "A raw, wild, uneven piece that reveals a degree of theatrical imagination." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Unexpectedly impressed." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Refreshingly bold and even original."