Theatre is born of creativity and passion. Everyone who has an involvement with theatre shares that, whether they are on the stage or just looking up at it: an actor puts it into their performance while an audience are inspired by it.
The theatre fan is a dedicated and fervid being, soaking in every note and emotion projected from the stage and making it part of who they are. Different shows affect people differently, but there will always be one which resonates with you stronger than all the others, which is just completely…you.
Each show in the West End has its own loyal group of followers – these are the fans who will play the cast recording till it’s worn through (and then get another copy), return week after week to absorb the experience again, be present for every cast change/gala night/cabaret and turn up as stage door regulars. Everything about a show, its music and cast and costumes and set, become almost sacred to these fans – but what about the theatre itself?
‘Priscilla-holics’ are amongst some of the most dedicated fans around. If you listened very carefully on New Year’s Eve (in between the fireworks, singing and general celebrations) you could almost hear their collective cry when Priscilla: Queen of the Desert journeyed to the desert on that pink bus for the last time before being towed to the scrapheap of shows. A close friend of mine has a very strong attachment to the show and was devastated to see it close. She’s been to see a variety of other theatrical productions since then but is yet to find one which, in her words, “fills the gap which Priscilla left.” The loss of the show itself made a big impact on her, but so has the swiftness of the show which replaced it. Singin’ In The Rain began its preview period last weekend at the Palace Theatre, former home to Priscilla. In fact, it was a comment from her which got me to thinking about the significance of the theatre venue itself in the first place. She said that, “Priscilla is the Palace and the Palace is Priscilla.” For my friend, the two are completely synonymous with one another and she just can’t bring herself to see another show at that same theatre so soon after the departure of Priscilla.
I know that she is not alone in feeling this way. For many people, the theatre which holds a favoured production becomes an extension of that production itself: it symbolises it almost. My daughter adored Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies, and ranted for days when I told her it was to close. The first time we walked past the Adelphi Theatre after LND had closed, she quite literally growled to see the One Man, Two Guvnors posters going up outside. She has vowed to me that she will never go back to the Adelphi without Love Never Dies being there. Of course, she is only seven and I’m pretty sure that self-imposed banishment won’t stick, but still, her reaction serves my point here. For both of these people in my life, the thought of seeing another show at these particular theatres seems a betrayal, akin to cheating on the shows they loved. I find that intriguing.
Certain theatres do evoke a natural association to the shows which play there, especially with the Wet End’s long-running shows. The Phantom of the Opera opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre twenty five years ago and has called it home ever since, I’m sure many people couldn’t imagine any other show – past or future – being there. The two are one and the same now. It’s like that word-association game: if I were to say “Her Majesty’s Theatre”, I’m willing to bet that most people’s first thought would be “Phantom.” That’s perhaps to be expected though, as Phantom has always been at Her Majesty’s. What about the longest-running West End musical, Les Miserables? If we were to play word association again, “the Queen’s Theatre” would probably earn the response of “Les Mis”, but it hasn’t always called the place home. Les Miserables has also played at the Barbican Theatre and the Palace Theatre – I doubt many people would associate the show with these theatres now though. I also doubt the Les Mis fans have avoided these theatres since it moved.
Moving a show from one theatre to another is a common occurrence in the West End: Chicago recently relinquished the Cambridge Theatre to Matilda and set up shop at the Garrick Theatre instead; Mamma Mia is to move from the Prince of Wales Theatre to the Novello Theatre following the 2012 Olympics and One Man, Two Guvnors, which has already transferred from the National Theatre to the Adelphi Theatre, is to become Phantom’s neighbour at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in March – these are just a few recent examples. In the cases where a show simply moves home, the previous theatre seems to quickly lose the significance it held, although I’m sure it still holds a memory of fond familiarity; it appears that it’s only in a show’s ‘death’ that its theatre becomes so meaningful to the fans.
When Priscilla posted its closing notice, I remember people joking that they’d no longer be able to direct people using ‘the theatre with the giant shoe on top’ as a central London landmark. I may have been one of them. I never made it in to see Priscilla there in the end, but I walked past the theatre on many occasions on my way to the MADTrust offices – I do quite miss that big white stiletto. The photo posted by former cast member Oliver Thornton of it strapped to the back of a removal truck was rather poignant actually, one of those iconic photos which speak a thousand words. If I felt a little twinge without ever having seen the show, I can only imagine the feelings it stirred up in the ‘Priscilla-holics’.
Personally, I don’t think that I would ever veto a theatre because of a particular show. The Phantom of the Opera is absolutely my best-loved West End show, but if it ever closed at/transferred from Her Majesty’s Theatre, I wouldn’t have any qualms about seeing something else there. On the other hand, I do find certain theatres evocative of certain shows I’ve seen there. It’s a subject I find quite fascinating actually, so if you would like to offer your thoughts in the comments section, I’d be very interested to see what the wider audience have to say.
By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)
Thursday 9th February 2012