We need to talk about stars in west end shows

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Are theatres becoming too dependent on stars to sell out their shows? Heather Nash discusses the Wyndham Theatre‘s lastest production of Don Juan…

A star name can ensure the sell-out success of almost any show in the West End these days. I should know, since I’ve fallen for that particular marketing ploy more than once in the past. Most recently it was the lure of seeing David Tennant live in the production of Don Juan in Soho at the Wyndham’s Theatre in London. As a venue, the Wyndham’s is revered and as an actor David Tennant is one of Britain’s most talented and most loved. Fresh off binging Broadchurch when the show was announced, I booked straight away. I almost wish I hadn’t.

Don Juan in Soho is a modern update on Moliere’s Dom Juan, originally a comedy and also a morality play. The character of Don Juan (irritatingly referred to as ‘DJ’ in Patrick Marber’s re-write) is a libertine; a self-confessed sex-addict who has not a strand of decency or regret, or indeed a conscience, left in him. He cheats on his wife and parades around Soho like a peacock who’s taken too much Viagra, until, bizarrely, a statue he’s cavorting around turns out to be a messenger from God. DJ dies in a bloody battle, and is banished to hell for his wicked ways. The end.

Marber’s re-write barely holds Moliere’s original play and the modern setting together. The story-line is out-dated and played for cheap laughs, mostly aimed at the women DJ’s seducing. The explicit sex is neither particularly shocking, nor actually particularly funny. David Tennant just about hangs on to his credibility – he seems to be having fun with the character on stage, and his jaunty posture and drawling accent nail DJ’s devil-may-care attitude. But DJ is meant to be an irredeemable character, whereas Tennant just has you scoffing slightly. He’s too endearing. Because we know Tennant, he’s a star and we love him anyway.

‘It’s an understandable move by the company to cast Tennant, but his talent seems somewhat wasted on this production’

And that is wherein the problem lies. If Tennant seems to be the wrong casting choice, it seems fair to conclude that he was cast for his public appeal. As almost the sole name in the show, it was on his credibility that the run sold out almost before it was out of previews. Most critics have panned the production, making exceptions for Tennant, but bemoaning the play’s frothy, and even a bit dull, writing. It’s an understandable move by the company to cast Tennant, but his talent seems somewhat wasted on this production, and it seems an easy way for the theatre to rake in the audience.

West-end theatre is commercial, there’s no way around that, especially when people are knuckling down on budgets for things like theatre. But so often these big name actors are pushed centre stage in lack-lustre productions flogged on their star quality alone. Take the Duke of York Theatre’s production of Doctor Faustus last year starring Kit Harington. The combination of a play that most people have at least heard of and a household name like Harington meant that it enjoyed sell-out performances, but the production itself was a bizarre mix of modern and original and Harington spent most of the performance looking slightly confused as to why he was being asked to run around the stage in his underpants. It’s worth noting that Tennant too was stripped down to a pair of boxers. Is ogling the famous name a selling point now too? Richard Madden and Lily James earned limp reviews for their star-studded Romeo & Juliet, despite Kenneth Branagh’s direction. It was no coincidence that it was just after the two starred in Disney’s live-action Cinderella, and people were delighted at the chance to see their chemistry translate on stage.

‘Big name actors are pushed centre stage in lack-lustre productions flogged on their star quality alone’

Theatre is a notoriously hard industry to break into, and British acting is already bursting with talent. Even in theatre circles big respected names may not be considered capable of ‘opening a show’ like a TV celebrity can, and so other actors miss out. But it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. In short, I’m left wondering when exactly London’s theatre became simply a competition of marketing strategies and booking famous faces.

Heather Nash

(Image courtesy of Helen Maybanks)

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