May 21: A new West End future beckons

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And a new play helps us to remember the past

In the soon-aborted theatre comeback last December, producer Sonia Friedman brought a two-man comedy — coincidentally itself called The Comeback — from comedy team The Pin, making their West End debuts, to the Noel Coward Theatre.

It was due to open on Wednesday December 16, but when the third lockdown was looming that kicked in at midnight the previous night, she’d taken the pre-emptive step of inviting critics in to see it the previous weekend; the first night itself duly got cancelled. That show is itself coming back in July, and Sonia Friedman Productions is also bringing in new life — and new voices — to the West End in its Re-Emerge season of three new plays at the Pinter Theatre, beginning tomorrow (May 22).

But no theatre owner or producer has done more to re-ignite the West End than Nica Burns, both then in December and especially now in May, than the forever-tenacious, ever-energetic and resilient Nica Burns, who has brought her own production of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie back to the West End faster, on both occasions, than any other musical in town, but also encouraged her other existing tenants to do the same thing this week (Deathdrop, which returned on Wednesday, and Six, which resumes tonight).

She has also — in the most enterprising step yet — filled the theatres that have shows that haven’t yet returned (or dark nights at those that have), with the Rising Stars Festival — a season that gives house room to some 18 productions by 24 young producers, all of them presenting work in the West End for the first time (some of them are pictured above with Burns, front centre).

Many of these are just one or two nighters; but one of them Katy Lipson is offering two shows for multiple week runs (the premiere of Cruise and the transfer of The Last 5 Years, the production that not once but twice had its run curtailed at Southwark Playhouse), and its a breath of fresh air to a theatrical landscape that was long staled and atrophied by its reliance on the now-and-forever shows that were locked into open-ended runs.

That, of course, used to be the model for West End (and Broadway) producing; you’d open a show and you’d have the theatre for the run-of-show: as long as the box office kept humming, you kept running. The theatre owner would retain a stop-clause, enabling it to give a show notice if earnings fell below a certain box office threshold, so they could get in a potentially more lucrative show instead (as the size of the audience also impacts on their ability to earn ancillary incomes, entirely retained by the theatre, like booking fees on tickets and of course programme and bar sales).

But in the last couple of decades, this producing model has given way to the strictly limited run: a fast-in, fast-out turnover of tenants, in which plays are usually booked in for limited 12-15 week runs; a smash-and-grab approach on audiences’ attention and wallets, often facilitating the availability of stars who don’t to commit to longer runs, but are happy to take a shorter break from their film or television careers. So it was a win-win; the theatres got hot stars, the stars got theatrical credibility, and audiences got more shows to see (or choose from), as there was more turnover.

But Nimax’s Rising Stars season takes this model a step further, and crams even more shows into the nooks and crannies of their theatre scheduling by giving these producers access to even shorter runs. As it is, Nimax have long been at the forefront of capitalising on every available opportunity to open their theatres, regularly booking shows into their dark nights, or (particularly during school holidays) offering day-time or weekend morning offerings of family and kids shows.

Thus it is that last night I was at the Duchess Theatre — already the most intimate of all of Nimax’s houses, with just 495 seats (though of course not all were available to be occupied, owing to social distancing) — for the opening of a four week run of Cruise, a debut solo play by Jack Holden, which he also performs (pictured above).

Solo shows are not exactly typical West End fare, unless by a well-known star actor or comedian doing a theatrical run; still less by a mostly unknown actor, though Holden made his debut straight out of drama school (Bristol Old Vic) by starring in the National’s global hit War Horse. He has subsequently appeared with the RSC, including the 2015 premiere of Tom Morton-Smith’s play Oppenheimer (which actually transferred to the Duchess Theatre too; he is pictured in it below, with Jamie Wilkes).

The usual tenant at the Duchess is the soon-to-return The Play That Goes Wrong (resuming performances from June 18), but Cruise is definitely a play that goes right. It’s a solo tour-de-force from the actor/writer, who has crafted a deeply personal, multiple-character story here, based on his own experience of being a volunteer for Switchboard, the LGTQ+ volunteer phone line that used to be a lifeline for gay information (in the days when I first arrived in London, pre-internet) as well as providing a listening ear for those taking their first tentative steps towards realising their gay identities, or in crisis for any reason.

As he says in the opening moments of the play,

“I was in my early twenties. And I wanted to give something back. Which stokes me as weird now. Because I’d barely taken anything at that age.”

But now he’s giving back even more, and that is providing a generous, beautifully crafted memorial to a generation that preceded him, in high-energy (and, briefly, even Hi-NRG) performance.

As I tweeted after seeing it last night,

At the end of the play, he reflects on turning 30 — “I do cringe a bit when I think of the 22-year-old me. I turned 30 last year – something I felt complete despair about at the time.”

Oh, the trials of youth! (Heck, wait till you get to my age! I’ll turn 60 next year!) But then even if he’s had a very different experience to me of growing up gay, and lived through a very different era of change, we’ve all lately been in the same boat.

As I tweeted last night, though he is too young to have experienced the 80s that his play memorialises first-hand, I did, and I recognised its world and the Soho landmarks of that era it describes (few of which are now left); like Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance, its attempt to wrestle with our past is moving.

As the play closes, he finds himself walking through the deserted streets of Soho at the time of the first lockdown, which coincided with that 30th birthday. And he says,

“I was reminded of Michael’s story. The places and the people he told me about. The people who didn’t make it to 30.

And, among the closed doors of Soho and against the backdrop of another virus, I realised just how lucky I was to be getting older.”

Yes, he is. And we are lucky to have him here to remind us of that. A whole generation of theatre makers and actors were wiped out by HIV/AIDS. A friend of mine, writer and film-maker Ash Kotah, has been leading a campaign to establish a permanent London memorial to those who’ve died as a result of AIDS-related causes.

As Ash, who himself was diagnosed as HIV positive after being raped in 1993, put it in a news story on MyLondon,

“When you see AIDS deaths, you never forget them. It’s like cancer deaths. Friends died, a boyfriend of mine died, and an ex-boyfriend too. I still have a good relationship with his children, because I promised I would, and he died back in 1995. They were horrible deaths. You see their bodies wasting away. And then there was the homophobia surrounding it at the time too.”

The crisis didn’t start abating till life-saving treatments started evolving in 1996. As the piece puts it,

“He describes the years surrounding his diagnosis, the 80s and 90s, as a “war” for the gay community.

Ash told MyLondon: “We lived through 15 years of a war – because that’s what it was. It started coming to an end in 1996, and then we liked to think of that time as the parties after the Second World War.

“But actually this time period was a bit of damp squib because we were all so damaged. We were just surviving.”

But we HAVE survived. Ash’s AIDS memorial project seeks to provide a national place of remembrance — as the piece puts it, “[AIDS] has been referred to recently as the “forgotten pandemic”, partly because there is nowhere for people to share in remembrance.”

Last night, sitting in the Duchess Theatre, it struck me that I was sharing a powerful act of remembrance. But after the play’s run ends on June 13, it would be even more wonderful if Soho finally offered a permanent memorial to this history.