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Friday, April 9, 1999 Published at 13:01 GMT 14:01 UK

Broadway's British invasion

Dame Judi: Broadway's hottest ticket

By BBC News Online Entertainment Correspondent Tom Brook

She may be a Dame of the British Empire but now she's about to become Dame of Broadway.

The New York theatre world is working itself into a lather over the arrival of Judi Dench, who will light up the Great White Way when she opens in the David Hare play, Amy's View, on Thursday night.

It will be a momentous event - her first performance on the New York stage in 40 years.

Ever since Dame Judi won the Oscar last month, Amy's View has become a must-see event. Tickets are in such short supply that I had to queue up for several hours to wait for a cancellation.

The advance box office is expected to break the $4m record for a non-musical, set just a few weeks ago by that act of theatrical Viagra, The Blue Room.

Glittering jewel of British invasion

[ image: Sir Ian Holm: A fan of Dame Judi]
Sir Ian Holm: A fan of Dame Judi
Fellow thespian Sir Ian Holm, who's currently shooting a movie in New York, has been observing Dame Judi's newfound Stateside stardom.

"She's our greatest actress and I'm very pleased she's been discovered by the Americans," he says. Although Dame Judi has had a stage career for the last 40 years, it's only since she started appearing in the Bond movies, and in Mrs Brown, that America has recognised her talent.

Dame Judi is without doubt the glittering jewel of the current British invasion of Broadway, which is more pronounced than ever this year.

Seven British productions have opened in the last six weeks, everything from Patrick Marber's skilful analysis of relationships and desire in the late 1990s, Closer, starring Natasha Richardson, to Marlene, Pam Gems' musical play about screen legend Marlene Dietrich.

It is so different from just a few years ago when Andrew Lloyd Webber's noisy mega-musical spectacles dominated commercial New York theatre.

Now the man of the moment is the more cerebral British director David Hare, who has probably broken a record by having four plays open on Broadway in the past year.

Cheaper to put on London hits

[ image: Nicole Kidman's Blue Room: A record breaker]
Nicole Kidman's Blue Room: A record breaker
The Americans seem to be lapping it up. Audiences show no resentment towards the Brits on Broadway. Anglophilia is part of the reason.

Even the New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley agrees that New York theatre audiences are awed by British works.

"It's still a colonialist attitude to some degree," he said in a recent discussion with other critics that appeared in his paper.

But really, it is economics that has created this massive British influx. Mounting a Broadway play from scratch is a high-cost and risky proposition.

Transferring existing British productions is much cheaper and less perilous. For American producers, if a play does well in one of the subsidised British theatres, or the West End, the positive buzz spreads to New York, almost guaranteeing a healthy box office for what is a tried and tested product.

Some American theatre professionals have become alarmed and wondered out loud what on earth has happened to good new American plays.

It is fashionable to criticise the recent works of American playwrights and claim they are too wrapped up in their own identity politics of sexuality and race and stifled by political correctness.

'Universal' British plays

[ image: Lloyd Webber: Broadway's favourite Briton]
Lloyd Webber: Broadway's favourite Briton
By contrast, British plays seem more contemporary and universal. Certainly this is true of Amy's View, in which Dame Judi Dench plays a West End actress who is passionate about theatre and locks horns with her son-in-law who is an ambitious electronic media man.

It's an impressive play that raises a lot of interesting questions about how we deal with family relationships, what we value, and whether or not we live in reality or a dream. All extremely relevant issues, at least in my life.

The irony is that British plays are being enthusiastically embraced by American audiences who are part of a culture that is extremely hostile to the very system that created them.

Nearly all the British productions on Broadway emerged in the world of subsidised theatre. In America in recent years there's been open contempt, especially in Congress, towards any public support for the arts.

Perhaps that is why the Brits can so easily rule Broadway, because without subsidies the economics of producing any new American play, on or even off-Broadway, are all too often overwhelming.

The current transatlantic invasion of Broadway cannot last forever because it is made up of plays from several past British seasons. There just is not enough product in the pipeline to maintain the British presence at the same level in the future.

So Britain's lock on the Great White Way, glorious though it may be, is expected to be short-lived.

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