Should new plays in London be worth more than regional premieres?

Lyn Gardner discusses the worth of London premieres versus the worth of regional premieres…

The theatre world’s London bias particularly affects new writing, which seldom attracts much attention beyond the capital.

One of the best plays I saw last year was Lungs, an off-kilter love story by Duncan Macmillan. Did Macmillan’s play appear in the best-of-year roundups? No, but that’s hardly surprising because no other national critic reviewed it. Why? Almost certainly because it premiered in Sheffield rather than at the Royal Court or the Bush in London.

To take another example, Nick Payne’s Constellations recently opened at the Court and got widely reviewed. But when his play One Day When We Were Young opened at the Sheffield Crucible Studio as part of Paines Plough’s Roundabout season just a few weeks earlier, it got precisely one review. Is a Nick Payne play in London worth more than one in the regions?

We’ve talked on this blog in the past about the inequalities of funding, critical attention and prestige between London and the regions, but nowhere does that seem more apparent than in new writing. It often feels as if a playwright or a play simply hasn’t arrived until it has arrived in London.

The imbalance was raised at the Junction in Cambridge on Saturday, during a discussion I chaired called State of the Nation, which was part of the Hotbed festival of new writing. The session covered various issues, ranging from the way the nature and definition of new writing has changed to reflect the changing nature of theatre itself – which, as Paines Plough’s James Grieve suggested, is often multi-disciplinary and more collaborative than in the past – to whether such labels matter.

As playwright Mike Bartlett pointed out, audiences really don’t care whether what they are coming to see is called new writing or not; what they do care about is having a good night out. “What you want to do as a playwright is to give them something that they will remember and feel changed by,” said Bartlett.

Grieve bemoaned the attitude of agents who don’t want their client to sign up for a cracking part in a touring production just in case “a walk-on in Downton comes up”. But he also thought it crucial for theatre to get out of the mindset that people really ought to come and see shows. “I see myself in competition with HBO,” he said. “Mad Men is my direct competitor; we’ve got to produce work as good as that in the theatre and which it is worth audiences leaving home and paying money to see.”

However, much of the debate was devoted to the regional imbalance that means playwrights have to get their work seen in London – a place Bartlett described as being increasingly like “a huge industry trade fair” – if they are to receive real attention not just from critics, but from literary managers, artistic directors and the theatre world as a whole. “You have to go to London and be seen in London if you want to build a career,” said Bartlett. “You have to keep up the buzz.”

Grieve, who directed Bartlett’s superb Love, Love, Love for two regional tours, and who will be taking it into the Royal Court in May, says that when he and George Perrin took over Paines Plough in 2010, they decided not to stage work in London for two years, instead spending their time touring to more than 70 towns and cities.

“We are a touring company and we thought that was the right thing to do,” he says. “But some accused us of elitism or reverse snobbery and said we were denying London from seeing the work. My answer was: ‘Get on a train’.”

Suzanne Bell, literary manager and dramaturg at Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, who is heading to the Royal Exchange in Manchester next month, pointed out there is something odd about the way a new piece of work shown in the regions may get an audience of 7,000 but only one review, while the same play in London at the Royal Court Upstairs would get at most an audience of 2,000, but extensive coverage and attention. She said she saw her job as caring for playwrights, nurturing their careers and supporting the years of craft-learning and experience that are essential for real career progression.

Bartlett agreed, observing: “My first professional play was actually my 10th play.” Bell pointed out that Tom Wells – whose play The Kitchen Sink ran at the Bush before Christmas and was highly acclaimed – did not appear from nowhere. Wells has previously written about 10 plays and had productions at West Yorkshire Playhouse, among other venues.

“The cult of the new and the birth of the first play as a masterpiece is a fallacy,” said Grieve. Playwrights only get good by doing a lot of work, and often that work is in and with regional theatres, who seldom get the due they deserve when that playwright hits the Bush or Royal Court.

“What we are trying to do in Liverpool,” says Bell, “is support career development. There are plenty of opportunities if you are under 26 and living in London, but what about all those playwrights who are over 28 and living in Cambridge and beyond?”

What indeed. For playwrights in 2012, it would seem that all roads still lead to London.

Click here to read the original article by Lyn Gardner posted on Wednesday 1st February.