Has Hollywood killed the West End star?

Being back on my home turf for the Easter holidays can mean only one thing: theatre, and lots of it. There’s something about the stage that always seems so alluring in London, and the adverts that adorn the walls as you bumpily ascend the Underground’s escalators are a constant reminder of what’s on offer. With so much to see, and so little time, I opted for a just a few shows that looked promising (and offered much appreciated student deals).

But what struck me upon making my bookings was not what, but who, I was paying to see. In each show was at least one star of film or television, and this makes me wonder whether or not this celebrity invasion is a positive move for London’s theatre.

It’s not as though I’ve never seen Hollywood’s exports on the West End stage, but the somewhat frightening frequency with which they are popping up is something I could not have predicted.  Two years ago, I broached this subject with a Time Out critic, who agreed that this intrusion was dulling the shine of undiscovered stage talent. Rather than nurturing unknowns who aspire to one day play Hamlet at the National, theatre executives are cutting out the middle man and employing well-known stars to do it instead. Step forward Jude Law, David Tennant et al.

This certainly isn’t to say that a film or television personality is incapable of producing a fantastic stage performance, and I have seen several big names which are a testament to this. What this does say, however, is that aspiring young talent is being left by the wayside in favour of them, and hugely skewing the future landscape of theatre in the process.

Something that has perhaps blurred the lines between screen and stage is the television searches that seek to find a new West End star. Lord of the musicals Andrew Lloyd Webber has been behind four series of talent competitions that offer a highly coveted leading stage role to the winner, and this seems to be playing a considerable part in affecting what audiences will pay to see. Recognisability – that which we judge the levels of celebrity upon – has become essential for London theatre.

But what it is doing for me, in all honesty, is quite the reverse. Flare Path, Terrence Rattigan’s 1940s love story, is currently playing at the Haymarket Theatre to positive reviews. But there’s one stipulation. Sienna Miller’s in it. I have nothing against her, and am sure that she is more than capable of a decent performance, but much as I want to see the play itself, I feel as though I am selling out somewhat if I purchase a ticket. I want to see a Rattigan play, not a Rattigan play with an A list star in it, but it seems as though the two are becoming synonymous.

I will undoubtedly seem rather hypocritical when I confess that I have tickets to see Keira Knightley in The Children’s Hour next week, and even more so when I indulge that I saw her on stage last year in The Misanthrope. Largely unconvinced by her as a film actress, I was pleasantly surprised by her performance, but I must reiterate that I first and foremost went to the show to experience some Molière. Desire to see the plays themselves should come first, and the Hollywood name tag second, but this order has become confused for the modern theatre-goer.

I could produce a considerable list of A list stars who I have seen giving convincing theatrical performances, but a far greater one of those who have not first dipped their toes into the Hollywood pool of fame. The saying goes that there is no substitute for real talent, but for theatre executives wanting to make a quick buck, it seems that a celebrity name will do. I guess that’s show business.


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