Casting celebrities in theatrical productions is no new thing. It has its draws and its setbacks. Of course, a big name is a great ticket-seller and can often bring in a new audience who may have never been to the theatre before, which is no bad thing. This practice of ‘stunt casting’ has also been accused of taking work away from performers who have trained for years though. Whichever side of the argument you fall on, no-one can deny that it has proved beneficial for the theatre industry in both financial terms and raising its profile. What about when a celebrity name takes on the other side of the business though? By that, I mean taking up the pen and writing their own show.
American actor Zach Braff has penned his own play, All New People, which has just entered the West End, opening at the Duke of York’s Theatre on 22nd February 2012. The comedy centres around Charlie, played by Braff, a depressed young man who has gone to an empty beach house with the intention of killing himself. His plan is thwarted however when a string of misfits turn up to view the property.
The play was deemed a triumph by the New York critics when it premiered over there and has received similar praise during its time in Manchester and Glasgow. Starring alongside Braff is Eve Myles (Torchwood), Paul Hilton (National Theatre, Donmar) and Susannah Fielding (National Theatre, RSC).
Braff is most known for his TV role of Dr John Dorian in the hit sitcom Scrubs, which ran for nine seasons. His writing debut though came with the award-winning 2004 film Garden State, which he wrote, directed and starred in, opposite A-list actress Natalie Portman. All New People may mark his playwriting debut, but Garden State proved him to be a talented writer. It would be disingenuous to simply write him off therefore as just another celebrity looking to cash in on his name. Both works have shown that he has an intelligent and insightful mind as he delves into the world of the middle-class American youth, disillusioned with life. It’s certainly something Braff understands. Although he has never been suicidal, he has admitted to suffering from bouts of depression, sharing that he has been on and off antidepressants throughout his life. It’s an image of Braff that is the polar-opposite of what public opinion may expect, most seeing him as the hilariously quirky character he played in Scrubs – but it’s both of these aspects that he has put into All New People. In an interview with The Independent Braff explained that this was the tone he aims for in his writing, where you can “vacillate between belly laughing and turn a corner and something quite serious in someone’s life has happened.”
All New People, directed by Peter Dubois, is sure to bring in the crowds at the Duke of York’s Theatre, but will it be for the right reasons? Will the audience come for the play, or for Zach Braff? I’m certain that a good number of people will come to see it purely because his name is attached, which is great in terms of ticket sales, but doesn’t necessarily offer enough credit to Braff as a writer. The critical reviews from New York prove that it is a winner in its own right, but I fear that the merits of the play will be lost in his name. That it will be a success, I have no doubt, but whether that’s because of the play itself or because of Braff is altogether harder to decipher. That’s not to knock his writing; I’ve already said that I think him to be a very talented writer and I’m sure that if All New People was a stinker of a play, his fans alone wouldn’t be enough to turn it into a success. I would however, be very interested to see if the play did so well if (1) Braff wasn’t starring in it, and (2) people didn’t know he had written it. Of course, Braff didn’t appear in the actual production in New York, which I think was a smart move as it probably did help the play to be judged solely on the merits of its writing (and the cast too, obviously). With him appearing in the London production though, I do suspect it will see the play become a bigger draw than it perhaps otherwise may have done. I like to think the theatre-going generation are not as fickle as that, but celebrity seems to equal instant success for a show nowadays.
By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)
Thursday 23rd February 2012