Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

At the beginning of Bartlett’s political and profound epic play, twelve completely different people across London wake up from an identical, terrifying dream – monsters and explosions, thousands of voices. At the same moment, a young man named John returns home after years away to find economic gloom, ineffective protest, and a Prime Minister about to declare war. But John has a vision for the future and a way to make it happen.

Coincidences, omens and visions collide with political reality in this ambitious and dextrous play, which depicts a London both familiar and strange, a London staring into the void.

13 explores the meaning of personal responsibility, the hold that the past has over the future and the nature of belief itself.

The play was first performed in 2011 at the National Theatre, London.

The Absence of War

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

The Absence of War offers a meditation on the classic problems of leadership, and is the third part of a critically acclaimed trilogy of plays (Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges) about British institutions.

Its unsparing portrait of a Labour Party torn between past principles and future prosperity, and of a deeply sympathetic leader doomed to failure, made the play hugely controversial and prophetic when it was first presented at the National Theatre, London, in 1993.


Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A rural counterpart to the urban Rents, according to author Michael Wilcox, Accounts touches on the same themes of homosexuality, money, and survival that the former play introduces. As teenage brothers Andy and Donald Mawson cope with the death of their father, learning how to run a farm with their widowed mother, Mary, the play primarily concerns the family’s processes of discovery – both in being independent land owners for the first time, and in terms of the brothers’ development during adolescence.

A bildungsroman, of sorts, Accounts details the daily routine of the family within their first year on the farm, and specifically demonstrates how Andy and Donald must mature quickly to take responsibility for its financial performance. With this mental maturity comes bodily maturity, as well; the audience becomes privy to Andy and Donald’s awakening sexuality, and in the case of Donald, emerging homosexuality. As a result, Accounts is a ‘coming out’ experience in the Scottish countryside, in the same way that Rents was in Edinburgh, for the play’s characters, the audience, and Wilcox, himself.

Accounts premiered at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre Club in May of 1981, with performances at the Fringe Festival following shortly after. The play made its way over to the US in 1983, and was shown in New York City’s Hudson Guild Theater.

The Accused

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Jeffrey Archer's play The Accused was written with a nod to the similarities of the performative environments that are the Courts of Justice and the theatre stage: here, the audience listen to the cases made by both sides of a murder trial, ask themselves if Dr Sherwood murdered his wife, if Jennifer Mitchell was his mistress, and which, if any, of his alibis should be believed.

At the end of the trial, the audience are then asked to deliver their verdict; do they think the doctor is guilty or not guilty. After their verdict is given, the play continues, with one of two endings, depending on how they have voted. Only then is the truth fully revealed.

The Accused premiered at the Theatre Royal, Windsor, in September 2000.

Actor's Lament

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

'A one-act play is like a confession'. So writes Steven Berkoff in the preface to the collection of his One-Act Plays. In his introduction to the collection, Geoffrey Colman, Head of Acting at Central School of Speech and Drama writes:'It is the one-act play, however, that most profoundly and immediately amplifies Berkoff’s extraordinary literary and theatrical voice. . . In discussion, [Berkoff's] eyes quite literally light up at the mere mention of the one-act construct. With relish, he outlines the bare-knuckled immediacy of its form and fatal but inevitable blow. Perhaps the very real pleasure in reading these nineteen one-act plays by Berkoff should not be about comparing them to his other plays at all, but imagining them newly and in performance. Berkoff’s theatre continues to refuse smallness of theme and narrative, and defies those who wish to collapse the place of theatre into reality-inspired ‘true’. A reading of these pieces will require the need for a performance alertness, ‘real’ at its very threshold.'

In Actor's Lament we meet John, an actor who although 'clever, cynical and witty' is nonetheless bitter as he moulders unappreciated in his career, and his age ticks along from forty to fifty.

Adam and Eve

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

'A one-act play is like a confession'. So writes Steven Berkoff in the preface to the collection of his One-Act Plays. In his introduction to the collection, Geoffrey Colman, Head of Acting at Central School of Speech and Drama writes: 'It is the one-act play, however, that most profoundly and immediately amplifies Berkoff’s extraordinary literary and theatrical voice. . . In discussion, [Berkoff's] eyes quite literally light up at the mere mention of the one-act construct. With relish, he outlines the bare-knuckled immediacy of its form and fatal but inevitable blow. Perhaps the very real pleasure in reading these nineteen one-act plays by Berkoff should not be about comparing them to his other plays at all, but imagining them newly and in performance. Berkoff’s theatre continues to refuse smallness of theme and narrative, and defies those who wish to collapse the place of theatre into reality-inspired ‘true’. A reading of these pieces will require the need for a performance alertness, ‘real’ at its very threshold.'

Of his cycle of Biblical plays, Berkoff writes: 'There is something so vital and dynamic about our wonderful biblical stories, myths or parables that they lend themselves so easily to a modern interpretation. Of course their passion speaks directly to all of us and few of us are immune from the same problems and obsessions.'

Adam and Eve tells of Eden's first parents in a comically exaggerated London slang.

Advice for the Young at Heart

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

It’s 2011 and 1958 and London is rioting. Candice is ordered by her gang-leading boyfriend to lure Clint into a honeytrap. Haunted by her grandfather’s mistakes, she stands at a crossroads. Will she do as she’s told, or will she learn to be true to herself before history repeats itself?

A modern tale for riotous times, commissioned and developed by Theatre Centre, Advice for the Young at Heart examines 2011’s unrest against the background of the 1958 race riots, exploring themes of race, family and misguided loyalty. A new play for young people aged 14+.

Advice for the Young at Heart was first performed at Redbridge Drama Centre, London, on 12 September 2013.

After Darwin

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Millie, a director, discusses with her actors, Ian and Tom, how to interpret two famous historical figures from the nineteenth century. It's 1831. The naturalist Charles Darwin is invited to travel with Robert Fitzroy into uncharted waters off the coast of South America aboard 'The Beagle'. Their five year journey is fraught with philosophical and personal tensions. Fitzroy, a staunch Christian, has faith in the unquestionable authority of the Bible; Darwin begins to explore a more radical vision, his theory of natural selection. A meditation on history and human relationships, After Darwin links past and present through these five characters, and raises timeless questions about faith, friendship and how we interpret the past.

After Darwin was first performed in July 1998, at Hampstead Theatre, London.

The After-Dinner Joke

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Caryl Churchill’s The After-Dinner Joke is a satire on the charity business, written for television. It was first broadcast on BBC 1 on 14 February 1978 as part of the BBC's Play for Today series.

Told in 66 short, episodic scenes, the plot follows Selby, a young woman who quits her secretarial job in a big corporation to pursue her passion for ‘doing good’. As a charity worker, she studiously avoids becoming embroiled in political issues, only to discover during the course of the action that this is impossible.

The BBC production by directed by Colin Bucksey, with a cast including Paula Wilcox as Selby.

After Haggerty

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Gathering together the political and social concerns of an era, After Haggerty addresses with breadth and complexity the politics of theatre and personal liberation at a time when social certainties were being rapidly destabilised.

Bernard Link, a socialist middle-aged theatre critic, has leased a flat in London from Mr Haggerty without having met him. Claire, who is sharp, brittle and American, storms into the flat expecting to find the father of her child, but finds Bernard instead. He is having the flat done up by a couple of jobbing decorators, including an out-of-work homosexual actor. The unhappy cohabitation of this mixture of people is punctuated by excepts from Bernard’s pan-European lectures on Marxist theatre, cryptic telegrams from Haggerty in Paris, and the off-stage squalling of Claire and Haggerty’s baby, Raskolnikov. Then Bernard’s father visits, his reactionary, bigoted views clashing with what suddenly feels like a household.

After Haggerty was first presented in 1970 at the Aldwych Theatre, London.

British imperial power thrived on stratification, and the nineteenth-century theatre that entertained those at the heart of the empire was no exception. In one corner there was the so-called legitimate theatre, which was starting to enjoy a new-found respectability as the old century came to a close; in the other there was music hall and other forms of popular performance whose commercial establishment wanted also to be socially accepted. Much of the innovation of the new century came about as a result of attempts, however unsuccessful, to close this gap, as well as to create a national drama of serious purpose.

The music-hall managers sought the ultimate accolade of royal sanction by persuading the new King George V to attend a command performance in 1912. They underlined their drive for acceptance by omitting from the line-up Marie Lloyd, the highest-paid music-hall star of the time. She openly flouted moral convention and had recently helped organize a strike of fellow artistes for better wages and conditions. On the other side of the fence, the profession of rogues and vagabonds had already won in 1895 its first knight, the actor-manager Henry Irving. He had turned the Lyceum Theatre into the equivalent of a National Theatre, a still elusive monument that would take another six decades to come into being, yet he promoted a conservative repertoire and, though supporting his leading lady Ellen Terry, denied her the range of roles her talent deserved.

Thanks to Irving and his usually despotic fellow actor-managers – for example OSCAR ASCHE, Charles Wyndham, John Martin-Harvey, Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Squire Bancroft– the standard of acting had generally risen and the long run had become established as the desired aim of any production. The glorious days of the actor-manager, however, were numbered; one of the last of the old school was Frank Benson, who began the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford-Upon-Avon and toured the country playing the Bard. The actormanager tradition, however, did survive, albeit fitfully and in different guises, in the likes of Donald Wolfit, Laurence Olivier, Anthony Quayle, Brian Rix, Steven Berkoff and Kenneth Branagh.

Major change had come about through technological advance, especially in the way theatres were lit, through the partial emergence of a new theatrical function in the figure of the director, and through the ownership and expansion of theatre buildings. The two largest London theatres, Drury Lane and Covent Garden, which had held a monopoly protected by royal patent until 1834, could not fill their capacity with new plays and opted for a florid style of spectacle which became a benchmark for other productions and against which there was a fierce reaction among those trying to improve the quality of the drama on offer to the theatregoing public.

While there were attempts by writers like John Masefield and James Elry Flecker to initiate a poetic upsurge, and J. M. Barrie launched his fantasy Peter Pan ten years before the First World War, the dominant writing style followed on from the naturalistic conventions of T. W. Robertson (1829–71) in the hands of Arthur Wing Pinero, Henry Arthur Jones, Oscar Wilde(whose playwriting was curtailed by gaol and calumny), John Galsworthy and William Somerset Maugham, who had four plays running in the West End in 1908. George Bernard Shaw, the first major writer for a century to devote his energies to the theatre, was leading the fight to create a modern drama of ideas; he derided Irving for not joining the struggle and championed foreign playwrights like Ibsen. Ranged alongside the Irishman Shaw in challenging English insularity were the Scottish critic and translator William Archer and the Dutchman J. T. Grein and his London-based Independent Theatre Society. This interest in a new international drama coincided with a re-evaluation of the staging of classics, especially of Shakespeare’s plays, and an accompanying concern for the integrity of the text. A key character in this trend was William Poel, whose experiments bore early fruit in the work of another critical figure, Harley Granville Barker. With J. E. Vedrenne, Granville Barker mounted seasons at the Royal Court and Savoy Theatres that were protoypes of National Theatre seasons to come, using ensemble acting and simple staging and design, and promoting a repertoire that included international plays (e.g. by Schnitzler, Maeterlinck, Hauptmann), new British drama (e.g. Shaw, Galsworthy and ST John Hankin) and Shakespeare. Such experiment inspired the development of the regional Repertory Movement, with, initially, its short runs of new and classical drama: Annie Horniman, who in 1904 had put her legacy from the tea trade into the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, switched her fortune to Manchester to found the first British ‘rep’ in 1908. Reps opened in Glasgow (1909, under Alfred Wareing), Liverpool (1911, under a trust), Birmingham (1913, under Barry Jackson, another wealthy heir) and Bristol (1914, short lived at the time, though not later). Despite the home-grown likes of Stanley Houghton, Harold Brighouse and John Drinkwater, the movement could not match the standard of the contemporary Irish writers, and when Sean O’Casey was rejected by the Abbey and came to live and work in England, he was rejected here too.

Ethical and political drama was strong among amateur groups in the cooperative and labour movement, in the Yiddish Theatre and among the suffragettes. In fact women played an important role in shaping the theatre, whether as innovative artists such as director-designer Edith Craig (active in the Pioneer Players and the Actresses’ Franchise League) or as managers, such as Horniman, Lena Ashwell, Emma Cons and her niece Lilian Baylis– who ran the Old Vic as a people’s theatre, setting out to perform the entire cycle of Shakespeare’s plays at affordable prices, a feat she achieved between 1914 and 1923.

Entertainment during the First World War, however, was mostly in a lighter vein: based on the Ali Baba story, the spectacular Chu Chin Chow opened in 1916 and ran for 2,242 performances, a record that stood for four decades. Commercial theatre held sway but was facing stiff competition from cinema, which ousted live performance from many theatre buildings. Sharply rising rents and costs meant a rise in sub-letting, theatre becoming more of a business without even the individual artistic input of an actor-manager. In such circumstances, the long run anchored in the star system became even more necessary for commercial success. Improvements in transport made more touring possible, but this increased the reliance on commercial productions from London and their values. Individual attempts to counter these forces, like Nigel Playfair’s reign at the Lyric, Hammersmith, inevitably succumbed to economic reality, though Baylis survived at the Old Vic and in 1931 took over Sadler’s Wells as a venue for ballet and opera. The reps, too, tried to resist these trends, but economics undermined their original impetus. Nevertheless, Bristol Little Theatre, Sheffield and Oxford all opened in 1923 and, along with Cambridge (1926), Northampton (1927), Birmingham and Liverpool, managed to keep the flame alight. Cambridge was a special case; inspired by the pioneer theorists Edward Gordon Craig and Adolphe Appia, Terence Gray had redesigned the Festival Theatre by dismantling the proscenium and thrusting the stage into the audience, and staged there influential modernist productions of classics. Most experiment took place in little theatres (in line with the European tradition of the independent theatres, the Moscow Art Theatre and its studios, and Max Reinhardt’s chamber theatre in Berlin). These little theatres were often run as clubs (e.g. the Everyman, Gate, Barnes, Mercury) where managements could escape the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain. Nugent Monck’s amateur Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich, continued the experiments of Poel and used an open stage for his repertoire of sustained courageous choices. The social role of theatre became a vital force; sometimes it was wedded to aesthetic experiment, as in the group theatre, which staged plays by T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, and sometimes it was overtly agitational, as in the amateur unity theatre and similar left-wing groups which flourished around Britain in the 1930s.

In writing, Noël Coward and Terence Rattigan have come to stand out in this period from the immensely popular Ivor Novello, or from Sutton Vane, Clemence Dane, Ben Travers, Emlyn Williams, R. C. Sherriff, John Van Druten, Frederick Lonsdale and J. B. Priestly, despite successful revivals of plays by some of the aforementioned playwrights. In 1925 Coward equalled Maugham’s record of having four plays in the West End at the same time. By now, the actors who were to dominate the middle of the century had come to the fore: Sybil Thorndike, Edith Evans, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave. Designers such as Motley and Tanya Moisewitch took their craft in new directions alongside increasingly powerful directors like Tyrone Guthrie. European ideas remained potent through directors like Theodore Kommissarzhevsky and Michel Saint-Denis, whose work at the London Theatre School was to be highly influential if little publicized. In 1929 the union Actors’ Equity was founded, just over a decade after the Actors’ Association had become a trade union. It joined the ranks of the stage hands and musicians who were already unionized at the start of the century.

The Second World War closed many theatres and destroyed one-fifth of those in the capital, yet at the same time it saw the growth of a popular interest in the performing arts through a number of initiatives. There was the shelter, factory and armed forces entertainment which often took place away from conventional theatre buildings; there were official organizing bodies like the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) and the Enternatinments National Service Association (ENSA); and there was the theatrical work of armed forces groups like the Army Bureau of Current Affairs play unit (in which Ted Willis and other Unity Theatre associates developed the Living Newspaper tradition) or of those affiliated to the active amateur British Drama League (founded1919). The Old Vic – the nearest company to a national theatre at the time – had moved north out of London and eventually set up a residency in Liverpool as well as touring. It returned to the capital, to the New Theatre, in 1944, remaining there for five years while the Old Vic building was repaired following blitz damage. But the inheritance of Baylis, who had died just before war broke out, was broken up and the company was separated from Sadler’s Wells, from ballet and opera.

Out of the war came a political consensus in favour of public subsidy for the arts; CEMA became the Arts Council of Great Britain, which moved away, however, from the former’s democratic impetus and focused on metropolitan patrician interests instead of regional, community and amateur initiatives. It did, nevertheless, help establish the Bristol Old Vic in 1946 at the Theatre Royal, which CEMA had saved from destruction, thereby making it the first British theatre to be financed by the state. Although the arts were low on the list of postwar priorities, in 1948 the Labour administration passed the Local Government Act, which allowed local authorities to spend a percentage of the rates on leisure but did not make it a statutory requirement. The National Theatre Act was passed in 1949, but more than a decade was to pass before a national company was founded.

Despite the hopes of some, who were represented at an important Theatre Conference in 1948 chaired by J. B. Priestley but boycotted by the West End managers, public subsidy did not offer a serious challenge to the commercial sector. This became dominated by fewer but more powerful managements in the wake of a doubling of rents for those buildings that had survived the bombing. A network of companies, known as The Group and headed by Prince Littler, controlled almost half the West End theatres and more than half the major touring theatres. The leading producer was H. M. Tennent under Hugh ‘Binkie’ Beaumont, who operated a nonprofit arm for supposedly riskier enterprises. The standard commercial fare comprised elegant plays with elegant decor, farces, ‘whodunnits’ (led by The Mousetrap, which opened in 1952 and was to become the world’s longestrunning play) and American musicals. Jean Anouilh and Jean Giraudoux outshone native talent, which, with a few exceptions from earlier times like Rattigan, seemed to have deserted the theatre. Verse plays by Eliot and Christopher Fry briefly posed an intelligent but apparently too rarefied alternative.

In a spirit of using the arts to heal the wounds of war, the Edinburgh International Festival of Music and Drama opened its arms in 1947 to world culture, though rather narrowly interpreted. This led the left to spearhead the Edinburgh Fringe and, in the shape of Glasgow and London Unity, to enter briefly the realm of professional theatre before being assimilated and reverting to the traditional amateur work. Club theatres continued to offer experiment, and Alec Clunes at the Arts Theatre in London assumed the mantle of the pocket-size national theatre, while the project to build the real thing was given renewed stimulus in 1951 with the laying of the foundation stone – but in what turned out to be the wrong place. The search for the right place rumbled on through countless committees. The Old Vic school was revived with a new wing, the Young Vic, which, in that incarnation, lasted until 1951. Alec Guinness came out of the war period in top form while a new generation of actors – led by Paul Scofield and Richard Burton – made its mark. Peter Brook was the young director to watch.

Postwar disillusion with the post-Holocaust and post-Hiroshima world cast its shadow over the playwrights; John Whiting appeared ahead of his time as did, from Ireland via France, Samuel Beckett, whose Waiting for Godot opened at the Arts in 1955. Alongside came other members of the so-called Theatre of the Absurd, like Eugène Ionesco. Running counter to this ethos was the socially oriented work of Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop, in the East End of London as well as in the West End, and the growing influence of Bertolt Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble, which visited England in 1956. That year also saw the founding under George Devine of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, which, following the success of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger – triggered by the showing of an excerpt on television – stimulated a resurgence of British playwriting and a new style of urgent poetic realism.

The following 20 years saw the creation of a serious theatre of debate at the centre of national cultural consciousness. There was a new confidence in the air which saw a wave of theatre building and conversion unmatched since the end of the nineteenth century. The publicly financed Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, was opened in 1958 as the first purpose-built repertory theatre in England for two decades; and within a dozen years after that, 20 new theatres had been built, about three-quarters dedicated to repertory theatre outside of London. Theatre in the Round became a major influence, especially in the north of England, at Stoke, then Scarborough, and in Manchester at the Royal Exchange. Actors such as Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay no longer had to assume the voice of standard English but could use their own accents.

Designers – Jocelyn Herbert, Sean Kenny, John Bury, Farrah, Ralph Koltai – revolutionized the look of theatre, and writers like John Arden, Arnold Wesker, Anne Jellicoe, Harold Pinter and many others in the years to come, such as David Rudkin, Edward Bond and Joe Orton, created a body of work unparalleled since Shakespeare’s time. With all its limitations, here was a major cultural achievement of international significance which put English theatre centre stage once more.

For a while the commercial world, in the shape of risk-takers like producer Michael Codron, played its part, but it was eclipsed when publicly subsidized theatre took off in the 1960s in the shape of the two national companies, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and, finally, after decades of wrangling, the National Theatre (NT). Peter Hall managed to achieve what his predecessors at Stratford-upon-Avon had not, an ensemble dedicated to exploring the plays of Shakespeare. In a direct line from William Poel, the RSC went back to the texts and used vigorous but simple and fluent staging; they transformed verse speaking and treated Shakespeare as their contemporary. Hall opened a base for the RSC in London at the Aldwych Theatre, where he staged classical work as well as modern and new plays. With Peter Brook and others, through their powerful main-stage productions as well as experimental work in smaller spaces, such as the Artaud-influenced Theatre of Cruelty season, Hall made the RSC an international force. Brook later departed for Paris and the company under Trevor Nunn necessarily became the new establishment, expanding in order to survive and eventually running five theatres.

Laurence Olivier, the inaugural artistic director of the National Theatre, formed a company first at the newly opened Chichester Festival Theatre and then took them as the NT to the Old Vic in 1963. Aided in his planning by his literary manager, the flamboyant critic Kenneth Tynan, he built an extraordinary group of performers, including many young actors who hailed from the Royal Court. In 1973 Olivier ceded power to Hall, who oversaw the company’s move to its new home on the South Bank of the River Thames in 1976–7 where, despite inevitable controversies, it enjoyed a sound reputation under him and his successors, Richard Eyre and Trevor Nunn, although, as the new century got under way, questions about its future and role were increasingly being asked.

Jennie Lee, appointed by the Labour government in 1964 as the first arts minister, oversaw a rise in grant to, and influence wielded by, the Arts Council as well as an overall improvement in the general health of the theatre. An historical anomaly – the censorship powers of the Lord Chamberlain, which had been tested and mocked in the West End in the late 1950s over the issue of homosexuality – was subjected to a concerted campaign for its abolition. Spurred by the prosecution of the Royal Court in 1966 for performing the banned Saved by Edward Bond, the campaign was victorious in 1968.

An alternative network of arts centres and arts laboratories, theatres in pubs, basements and old halls, spread quickly in the late 1960s and 1970s, inspired by international developments and visits from the United States of groups like Open Theater, Living Theater and Bread and Puppet Theater. Women’s, gay and black theatres were emerging, given a boost by seasons at the Almost Free Theatre, a fringe venue run by the dynamic Inter-Action group. Innovation and collective creation mixed with a new politics in a flourishing fringe scene, ranging from the Pip Simmons Theatre Group and the People Show to 7:84 and Monstrous Regiment. A new generation of actors, directors, designers, and writers from the fringe reinvigorated the conventional theatre. The work of Howard Barker, Howard Brenton, Caryl Churchill, David Edgar, Trevor Griffiths and David Hare could be seen alongside that of Michael Frayn, Peter Nichols, Peter Shaffer and Tom Stoppard. Stage playwrights became militant and in 1976 formed the Theatre Writers’ Union – to the left of the existing Society of Authors and Writers Guild of Great Britain – to better both their financial rewards and their influence over production. After a strong campaign, which included a boycott of the NT, a minimum contract was agreed for subsidized theatre managements.

Much of the new energy of the time was channelled into community theatre and theatre in education as well as into small new-play theatres like the Bush, Soho Poly and Traverse. As the regional impetus continued – the Sheffield Crucible was founded in 1971, the Nottingham Playhouse was a focus of important new writing, Prospect toured major productions many theatres opened studios to allow new work to proliferate. As it turned out, this also had the effect of siphoning off the new work. When television, which developed its own distinctive drama output, helped kill off the reps and public funding was reduced for regional theatres, the studios closed, leaving quite a few theatres able to offer only conventional productions reliant on the output of London and on a new star system based on media personalities.

The British musical came into its own, thanks largely to Andrew Lloyd Webber and his collaborators. There had been earlier landmarks – Sandy Wilson’s The BoyFriend and Salad Days by Dorothy Reynolds and Julian Slade in the 1950s had been followed by Lionel Bart’s cockney exuberance, notably in the 1960 hit Oliver! Lloyd Webber’s Cats opened in 1981 and became the world’s longest-running musical. During that decade Lloyd Webber and producer Cameron Mackintosh were able to emulate the touring shows at the start of the century and export popular musicals abroad, even coming to conquer Broadway, the home of the modern musical. A measure of the shift this represented is the fact that the Boublil & Schönberg musical Les Misérables was launched outside the commercial sector in England at the RSC, and the NT offered successful productions of musicals such as Guys and Dolls, Carousel, Oklahoma! and My Fair Lady something that would have been unthinkable to its early pioneers.

The major reason for this embrace of the commercial world by the publicly subsidized sector was the policy of the Conservative governments from 1979 to 1997, which saw theatre funding suffer severe cuts. The Labour government elected in 1997 continued in similar, though less draconian, vein. By 2000 the Arts Council of England had pronounced theatre an art form in crisis, and reported declining audiences, fewer performances and tours, less challenging plays and increasing deficits thanks to prolonged underfunding. However, an announcement in 2001 of the biggest ever rise in grants suggested this parlous situation might eventually be tackled. During her time, Margaret (‘There’s no such thing as society’) Thatcher had given English philistinism new rein, debasing culture generally and marginalizing theatre in particular. While devolution in public funding was encouraged, she forced the Arts Council to abandon in practice (though not in rhetoric) its ‘arm’s length’ principle and become a tool of government. Following the American model, but without access to either the wealth or the tradition, she pushed the arts into the arms of private sponsorship, claiming it would not replace core public funding, which, inevitably, it did. This was no fault of the business partners but entirely of government, which in 1995 introduced the National Lottery and further destabilized arts funding by making more money available to the arts through this channel than through the public funding agencies. A new wave of theatre building and restoration took place thanks to the Lottery, but money was not provided to support individuals or companies who could fill these buildings with quality performances, let alone run them. An insistence on the award of Lottery grants being dependent on securing matching funding from the private sector also meant increasing numbers of arts bodies competing for the same small pot of private capital. There was a massive cost in Lottery administration and in the amounts spent on feasibility studies for projects that were subsequently denied funding. Theatre, which had become increasingly professionalized since the Second World War, saw the rise of an arts bureaucracy, particularly in middle management and in the numbers of accountants and consultants that had to be hired to satisfy funders that their money was being used efficiently and effectively.

The subsidized theatre had become the driving force of English drama, and the commercial theatre had come more and more to rely on the public sector for its productions. (Awards ceremonies were dominated by the subsidized sector, which also was the original source of the five plays by Alan Ayckbourn that played simultaneously in the West End in 1975, thereby breaking the record set by Maugham and Coward.) Yet public funding was insufficient to allow the public sector to remain vigorous on its own terms it could not even sustain a true ensemble – and public and private began to merge within the world of the marketplace. Against the backdrop of a hostile government, the still craft-based theatre had to compete with the effects of the rise of new technologies, in particular the growth of home entertainment through video, cable and digital television, computer games and the internet. There were also challenges from other art forms, particularly dance, and it was common for directors and designers to work in both opera and theatre. Experiment and the influence of eastern thinking changed notions of drama and playmaking, and broke down barriers between forms, as seen in the growth of performance art and site-specific work and productions by companies such as DV8 and Frantic Assembly.

As is often the way, the fringe – in the guise of groups such as Cheek By Jowl and Theatre de Complicite, and the work of innovators like Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott (who, with Lee Simpson, founded Improbable Theatre) – revitalized the mainstream and showed that creativity could still surface in the new cultural landscape, however difficult it might be. The diversity of English theatre was remarkable; and there were other positive signs, such as the welcome increase in the participation of women, with more women playwrights, directors, designers and administrators making their mark. But the commanding heights were still occupied by men; the glass ceiling had yet to be removed, and was indeed reinforced by a male backlash of acceptable ‘laddism’ in the 1990s. The theatre also remained very white, unable to speak for, through or to its multicultural citizenry; despite the survival of groups like Talawa and Tara Arts, the number of such companies dropped badly, and television rather than theatre became the magnet for performers.

With the increased cost of attending drama schools, training was in a parlous state, a bad situation made worse by the decline in regional theatre which had previously been the lifeblood of the theatre system. Companies like the Yorkshire-based Northern Broadsides under actor Barrie Rutter fought back, and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, which opened in 1990, bucked this trend and showed under Jude Kelly what a resourceful regional theatre could achieve when imaginatively serving its own community.

In new writing the Royal Court offered a platform to another ‘new wave’ of playwrights, yet was caught in the ‘event’ culture and rarely sustained a developing relationship with a playwright. There was a vitality and emphasis on storytelling and language in plays from Ireland, like those of Sebastian Barry and Conor McPherson, while some writers from England, like Sarah Kane in Blasted (1995) and Mark Ravenhill in Shopping and Fucking (1996), were sending out high-voltage shocks that reverberated through the mass media. A crop of knighthoods and damehoods for actors – Tom Courtenay, Judi Dench, Michael Gambon, Nigel Hawthorne, Ian Holm, Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, Diana Rigg, Antony Sher, and for writers – Alan Ayckbourn, David Hare, John Mortimer, Tom Stoppard – suggested that English theatre at the end of the century was acknowledged to be a cultural leader and was seen to be playing its part in the world of entertainment, even if the theatre itself was less certain of its own direction and social function.

from Colin Chambers, The Continnum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).