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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 October 2005, 08:00 GMT 09:00 UK
Playing it safe in London's West End
By Victoria Lindrea
BBC News entertainment reporter

Harold Pinter
Birthday Party playwright Pinter recently won the Nobel prize
When Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize for Literature last week, he was the first British playwright to win the accolade in more than 50 years.

This is not to suggest there have been no decent playwrights, aside from Pinter, since the 1950s.

But it does give rise to the question of which, if any, current playwrights might become household names in years to come.

Alongside Pinter, the 1950s and 1960s brought a plethora of acclaimed playwrights, including a trio of Sirs - David Hare, Tom Stoppard and Alan Ayckbourn.

But as television and film gained increasing prominence, new playwrights have struggled to enter our national consciousness.

It is not for want of talent, but with the commercial overheads in London's West End it is increasingly difficult for today's playwrights to win the international attention.

Sonia Friedman
The West End is the heartbeat of London
Sonia Friedman

Increasingly, new work has become the sole premise of the subsidised sector, with the National Theatre, the Royal Court and regional theatres reaping the benefits, while the West End is submerged in a sea of tribute musicals and starry revivals.

Earlier this week, Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre announced a playwriting competition promising 45,000 to the winning playwright and a fully-staged production.

But Sonia Friedman is just one of the current crop of West End producers challenging the recent trend for playing it safe in London's Theatreland.

"New producers have to take responsibility for bringing new work to the West End," says Ms Friedman, 40. "We can't always be riding on the coat-tails of subsidised theatres."

No guarantees

Success inevitably depends on allying new plays with star turns from celebrities, but there are no guarantees.

"New work in the West End is notoriously difficult to make work, because audiences are less confident about buying into a new play before it opens - and you need strong advances in the West End because it's so expensive."

(l-r) Conleth Hill and James Nesbitt in Shoot the Crow
Friedman has had critical success with new play Shoot the Crow

"Very often, you produce a play in the West End - particularly a new play - because a certain actor is attached to it. That is the element that drives it forward, as opposed to your passion for the play," says Ms Friedman, whose producing credits include Madonna in Up For Grabs in 2002.

"You make your decision on a commercial basis."

Sir Tom Courtenay opened the West End production of Brian Friel's new play The Home Place earlier this summer, but it closed early following lukewarm reviews. Nigel Planer's poorly received On the Ceiling was similarly short-lived.

"That's why reviews are so much more important in the West End," explains Ms Friedman.

"When a theatre has a successful artistic policy, like the Almeida or the Donmar Warehouse, and tickets are only 10 or 15, people will take that risk up front. In the West End, they don't."

But reality TV show The Play's the Thing could do for budding playwrights what Operatunity did for emerging sopranos.

The Play's The Thing
The show takes its title from William Shakespeare's Hamlet

Due to air on Channel 4 next year, the show challenges Friedman and her "expert panel" to uncover a new British playwright and open their play in the West End.

So far, the panel - with the help of some 40 readers - have whittled down more than 2,000 entries to just 30 plays. But debate rages as to what qualities the winning play should have.

"It has to be a play that lives beyond that first cast. A play that I can imagine being done across the country, in other territories," says Ms Friedman.

Socially aggressive

Royal Court founder George Devine pioneered new work in the late 1950s, in a bid to move theatre out of its safe, middle class confines.

John Osborne's Look Back in Anger was among the first plays to premiere at the London theatre - and his socially aggressive drama set the benchmark for fellow Court dramatists including Joe Orton, David Edgar, Caryl Churchill and Sarah Kane.

John Osborne
Osborne's Look Back in Anger debuted at the Royal Court in 1956

Next year, the venue celebrates its 50th anniversary amid a fanfare of new works by Stoppard and Hare.

"I'm not prepared to work in an environment where we have to accept a status quo that says we can't be challenging and radical," says Ms Friedman.

"If the West End wants to be a vital force in the next 25 years, we have to nurture the new playwrights - and the new directors."

"I'm a creative producer. I'm much more interested in creating work from scratch - as opposed to cherry-picking the work that other people do."


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