What’s Hot in London: May 15-21

Special Features   What’s Hot in London: May 15-21
Britain’s biggest theatre chain ATG has a leadership change, theatre critics become a news story in London, and School of Rock announces London dates.

National Theatre removes hospitality of extra guest ticket from theatre critics
Theatre reviews sometimes make the headlines, but the people writing them usually don’t. That changed in London this week when a private memo issued by myself to my fellow critics—in my role as chairman of the drama section of the U.K’s Critics’ Circle—was shared with the news desk of the Daily Telegraph.

It concerned a change in the traditional protocol at London’s National Theatre in which critics are—in line with common industry practice on both sides of the Atlantic—afforded a pair of complimentary review tickets to most shows. This pair was summarily reduced, without notice, to a single ticket for all future productions in the Olivier and Lyttelton Theatres (smaller theatres like the National’s own Dorfman, the Donmar or Royal Court’s Jerwood Upstairs already only give one).

I informed members that I had registered my concern with the newly appointed head of press, Vicky Kington, at the theatre, noting that “Of course there is no automatic right to a second free ticket, and this is definitely in the category of privilege not a right. But the National also imposed it without any prior notice or consultation whatsoever, and it was only on a close reading of the latest invitation to their next production that the new policy came to light.”

Kington’s response, which I also copied to members at her suggestion, was positive: “Having listened to your concerns it is clear that we did not give enough time to introduce this change. With this in mind we can now confirm that the NT’s policy of offering a pair of press tickets on press night to each show in the Olivier and Lyttelton, will remain in place until August 2016, when the new policy of one ticket, plus one to buy, will begin.”

The Telegraph was keen to position the change as partly a reaction against negative reviews that some of new artistic director Rufus Norris’s choices have received. The paper’s lead critic, Dominic Cavendish, wrote, “On a press relations level, the move smacked of sour grapes—a retaliatory swipe at Fleet Street for not cooing over every offering in Rufus Norris’s strong but hardly faultless first year. On a pecuniary level, it’s hard to see how redistributing that modest allocation to other (presumably online) outlets in the name of broadening critical diversity and bringing in new audiences stacks up.”

The National, for their part, has stated the policy change was dictated by finite resources to tickets, with the ticketing assistant stating: “As I’m sure aware, our allocation in each of the theatres is limited: we have a set allocation for each press night rather than run of the whole house, and we are seeking to accommodate a wider range of media titles in order to reach more diverse audiences.”

I’m sure other producers are keeping a keen eye on how this plays out. Will London critics become haunted, solitary figures—doomed only to speak to each other on press nights? Presumably once that happens, they will suddenly be accused of colluding in their opinions, whereas the presence of a companion means critics often steer clear of each other.

But there’s a wider worry now of mutual suspicion on both sides of the reviewing fence. More and more, newspapers are buying tickets anyway to steal a march on critical opinion and publish reviews following first previews. It happened again this week, with the Telegraph (again) publishing a review for the topical political satire A View from Islington North (that doesn’t officially open till May 24 at the Arts Theatre) the day after its first preview. The paper did the same with the Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet (as did The Times).

Producers may be playing with fire to antagonise the critics, who for the most part are on-side with another established protocol that performances are not reviewed until the opening night. But under pressure from editors to get in early, and with no guest ticket on offer to persuade them to hold off, there may be a sudden rush to the critical cliff. Once one protocol is breached around ticketing, what’s to stop the tide of other protocols crumbling around it?

ATG’s co-founders depart from the helm of Britain’s largest theatre chain
The Ambassador Theatre Group was founded in 1992 with just one West End theatre, the Duke of York’s, in its portfolio by husband and wife team Howard Panter (now Sir Howard Panter) and Rosemary Squire. In the years since, the chain has expanded across Britain and including major holdings in America and Australia.

They’ve acquired some eight more West End theatres (though one of them, the Albery—now the Noel Coward—reverted to the owner of its freehold Cameron Mackintosh after the expiration of the original lease, and the freehold interest in the Donmar Warehouse has also been acquired by the theatre itself, so that will pass to their own full ownership once ATG’s lease expires).

Across Britain, they bought all 16 of the theatres previously owned by Live Nation, including venues in Manchester, Edinburgh and beyond, thus becoming Britain’s biggest theatre operator. And in 2013, ATG bought Broadway’s biggest theatre, the Foxwoods (now the Lyric), and also announced plans last year to re-open the Hudson Theatre as a Broadway house, plus other theatres in Brooklyn, New Orleans and San Antonio. In addition, they also acquired the Theatre Royal in Sydney, Australia.

In an interview at the time of their North American plans, joint CEO Squire told The Stage, “This is the first step in North America to combine regions with Broadway, because obviously we have a Broadway theatre. In London we’ve always had the same thing—West End theatres as well as regional theatres. So it’s the first step of many, we hope, to grow the business in the way we have done very successfully in the U.K.”

But in a dramatic move this week, it was suddenly announced that Squire and Panter are stepping down as joint CEO’s with immediate effect, though both will continue to be associated with the company as directors and shareholders in it. Squire will also be Deputy Chairman of the ATG Group and remaining Chairman of Sonia Friedman Productions, a subsidiary owned by ATG. Panter will continue as Executive Producer on some existing and future ATG projects. He will remain Chairman and Producer of The Rocky Horror Show worldwide and ATG will continue to partner and invest with him in his future productions.

In addition, they are acquiring the Trafalgar Studios from ATG where, according to press materials, “they will evolve a distinctive artistic direction for the theatre.”

They are being replaced as CEO by Mark Cornell (previously held the role of managing director of Sotheby’s Europe) as Group Chief Executive Officer, with Adam Kenwright stepping down from the theatrical marketing firm he co-founded AKA (which has offices in London, New York, Europe and Australia) to become Executive Vice President.

Panter and Squire have, for an unprecedented seven years, topped The Stage 100 Power List of the most influential people in British theatre, so this power shift is bound to have large repercussions throughout the industry.

As Stage print editor Alistair Smith has commented, ”One would expect its global expansion to continue apace, although with Panter gone its production output is likely be focused through its subsidiaries, such as Sonia Friedman Productions.” And he posed one more thought: “What does it mean that theatre’s largest company is now being led by a marketer and a luxury-brand expert?”

Production and casting news of the week
School of Rock - the Musical has announced its West End home and dates. It will begin performances October 24 at the New London Theatre—the same theatre where Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats played its then record-breaking year of 21 years; and in a neat bit of symmetry, comes to London from the Winter Garden Theatre, where Cats also played out its then record-breaking run, too, on Broadway.

Also transferring to London, this time from Off-Broadway: Fiasco Theatre will bring their production of Sondheim’s Into the Woods—featuring its original cast of ten actor-musicians—to London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, from July 1. And the Menier—currently represented on Broadway by the Tony nominated revival of The Color Purplewill transfer its most recent play The Truth, by French playwright Florian Zeller in a translation by Christopher Hampton, to the West End’s Wyndham’s Theatre from June 22 with its original Menier cast, including Alex Hanson.

Matt Smith—who originated the role of Patrick Bateman in the original London production of American Psycho, currently being played on Broadway by Benjamin Walker—returns to the London stage to star in Anthony Neilson’s Unreachable at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs from July 2.

Finally, the cast for the 10th anniversary year of Wicked in the West End will see Rachel Tucker coming from her current stint as Elphaba on Broadway to lead the company from September 5, when Suzie Mathers, who appeared in the Australian production, will join her as Glinda.

For further news…
Stay tuned to Playbill.com—and follow me on Twitter here, @shentonstage, for rolling news updates as they happen.

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