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A golden age for British theatre?

Box office sign

by Rebecca Jones
BBC Arts Correspondent

While we may have been tightening our belts in recent months, one business appears largely unaffected by the recession, with huge numbers of us going to the theatre.

Figures out later this month from the Society of London Theatre, (which represents 52 venues in the capital), are expected to show 2009 was a record breaking year - with more than 14 million tickets sold.

The straight play has done particularly well. Attendances are up by more than a quarter on the previous 12 months.

Keira Knightley and Damian Lewis in The Misanthrope
Star quality: Keira Knightley and Damian Lewis in The Misanthrope

And much of what we have seen on stage has been outstanding.

My highlights include Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth's contemporary vision of rural England, with a remarkable performance from Mark Rylance. After a sell-out run at the Royal Court in London, it is transferring to the West End later this month.

I also loved Enron, Lucy Prebble's play about one of the biggest financial scandals of all time. It sold out at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester and again at the Royal Court. It arrives in the West End later this month with a reported advance of one million pounds.

A success then, and one of many, according to its star Samuel West.

"We are very good at theatre in this country and we have been since 1620 and it's important to pat ourselves on the back when we do things well," he says.

But that does not wholly explain why theatre is flourishing now, during a slump. Samuel West thinks for many, a theatre ticket has become an affordable luxury.

"To look at it in a narrow fiscal sense, anybody who wasn't making their money through their investments, is slightly better off because of falling mortgage rates than they were, and they might have a bit more money to spend, and they might be spending it on going to the theatre."

Cuts to come

But theatre would not have survived the recession as well as it has unless there were shows people wanted to see. The Director of the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner thinks the plays on offer are proving a real draw - especially those written in response to our rapidly changing world.

Mark Rylance as 'Rooster' Byron in Jerusalem
Mark Rylance as 'Rooster' Byron in Jerusalem

"The predicted appetite for entirely escapist fare, the kind of fare that we're told sustained audiences through the Great Depression of the Thirties, has been slightly misplaced", he says.

"It turns out there's a huge audience for straight plays, for serious theatre, that addresses head on the world that people feel they're part of, that engages with a world that at the moment appears to be spinning out of control."

Of course your experience of theatre will vary enormously, depending on where you live and what you like.

A great night out in the West End for some, might be seeing a reality television winner in a musical. For others it might be the ingenious puppetry of War Horse. Or a star turn like Keira Knightley in The Misanthrope. There is a huge variety on offer.

But the picture seems patchier outside London. Some regional venues are doing well, including the Liverpool Everyman and Chichester Festival Theatre. Not only are they producing ambitious work on stage, but also working within their local communities to attract new audiences.

The actor Sam West
Sam West believes theatre-going is 'an affordable luxury'

There are high hopes too for the Sheffield Crucible and Bristol Old Vic, both of which have new Artistic Directors in charge.

But other theatres are struggling, hit by a decline in private donations and corporate sponsorship.

And whatever the outcome of the next election, spending cuts seem inevitable. The 2012 Olympics is also likely to demand more and more public money, which could be diverted from arts budgets. It is feared smaller companies could struggle and some venues might close.

Theatre may be thriving now, but it faces an uncertain future.

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