The Play’s The Thing

The West End is not usually the place for trying out new writing. The costs involved are usually too great – both for producers and the theatergoing public – to take a risk on an untested voice.

That’s not to say plays by first-time writers never play on West End stages, but they’ve usually arrived there from the National or the Royal Court, or have a big name attached – and therefore a guaranteed audience – as was the case of Smaller starring Dawn French, written for her by soap scribe Carmel Morgan.

A new reality TV series on Channel 4 has ambitions to change that. The Play’s The Thing offered wannabe playwrights the chance to see their work debut at the New Ambassadors Theatre in the heart of the West End. The response was staggering and the competition received over 2000 entries.

This large number was then whittled down, by professional play-readers, to a final 30. The three-man judging panel faced with the difficult task of selecting a winner was made up of theatre impresario Sonia Friedman – cofounder of Out Of Joint and producer of, amongst other things, Tom Stoppard’s forthcoming Rock ‘n’ Roll and the current Broadway hit Faith Healer starring Ralph Fiennes – renowned literary agent Mel Kenyon and actor Neil Pearson – Dave from Drop The Dead Donkey, most recently seen on the London stage in Cloaca at the Old Vic. Over the course of the first three episodes, and via some impassioned and colourful debate, these 30 were reduced to 10 and then to a final three entries from which the winning play was to be selected.

Entrants were initially asked to submit a synopsis and some sample scenes. Once the final 10 were chosen, they were sent off to develop these embryonic efforts at a residential playwriting workshop with award-winning writer Stephen Jeffreys. According to Friedman, the judges were looking for not just someone with writing ability but a play with “appeal and originality of subject matter and the writer’s ability to visualise the play for the stage.”

“There’s an argument that putting on new work is no longer the remit of the West End. All I know is that, as a producer, it’s what I want to be doing.”
– Sonia Friedman.

The series provides an insightful look at the world of West End theatres and raises the question of what should be staged in these spaces. 2006 is proving to be the year of the musical, with a number of big Broadway transfers coming this way over the coming months (Avenue Q, Wicked, Spamalot) as well as number of homegrown revivals: how will an untested play fare amongst such imposing competition? Despite the difficulties inherent in staging new work, Friedman remains committed to the idea: “All I know is that, as a producer, it’s what I want to be doing and, if I really can’t do it, I want to know why not. This experiment is an opportunity to open up the debate.”

The final three include a university lecturer from Chichester, a supermarket worker from Manchester and an advertising copywriter from London. The series charts the entire selection process and follows the successful production from first rehearsal to opening night. With a cast that includes Shamelesss magnificent Maxine Peake and the publicity generated by the documentary behind it, it will be a surprise if the play isnt at least a modest hit. But most new writing still starts life in small studio spaces and pub theatres, without this level of public exposure.

This is an undeniably restrictive system but it has its benefits. It allows writers to develop and mature. The 21-year old Moses Raine;s debut play Shrieks Of Laughter received some critical flack for being underdeveloped, for feeling like little more than a fragment, when it opened at Soho Theatre last month. And much of the debate surrounding the National’s new production of David Eldridge’s Market Boy concerned the rarity of a relatively young playwright being given free reign in the Olivier. And perhaps some of those concerns were justified – as it turned out Market Boy was a big production, but one that masked a very slight play.

The West End will always benefit from an occasional shake up – anything that deviates from the dusty unambitious revivals and back catalogue musicals is welcome – but in exposing a first time playwright to the critical and financial pressure of the West End, The Play’s The Thing may be pushing for too much. Still Friedman appears committed to the project and she has a track record that can’t be argued with. She clearly has a realistic idea of what’s possible – and what might not be.

The Play’s The Thing begins on Channel 4 on Monday 12 June. The winning play opens at the New Ambassadors Theatre, London, on 22 June.

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