Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Starring Michelle Collins and Keith Duffy

Hampstead Theatre is a theatre founded on artistic credibility and sustained by a reputation that means it attracts some of the best writers in the UK today and that actors want to perform there. It is a theatre where all actors are equal, like yellow cards before the world cup quarter finals, whatever success they have had and whatever fame they do have, count for nothing. It is all about the production and the play. Nothing else matters. Or so the theory goes.

A short distance away, Trafalgar Studios are also producing a high quality bill of plays for discerning audiences who are looking for high quality productions of new or critically acclaimed works. The TV credits of actors mean nothing to the people that attend, they are not swayed by such shallow considerations. Or so we are led to believe.

And yet, in the last week, productions have opened at both of these venues where the main device for generating publicity has been to plaster the words 'Starring Michelle Collins' and 'Starring Keith Duffy' on any poster, programme or press release they can find.

It is a sad and damning indictment of the theatre crowd today if they really need these inducements to get them into the shows. This is not to say that either Collins or Duffy are bad in their respective productions. Both of them, in fact, give strong performances, with Duffy in particular defying critics who may have relished the prospect of trashing the West End debut of someone who is cursed with the twin evils of boyband super stardom and a role in a long running soap opera.

But neither Collins or Duffy are the stars of their shows. Duffy is closer to a cameo than a central performance, while Collins is part of an ensemble piece where there are at least two other actors with a higher billing than her in terms of their roles and stage time. So why push their names to their forefront? Because they are household names? Because they may attract a voyeuristic crowd hoping to see them fall flat on their faces? Because they are the only redeeming feature in plays that are so poor that they would otherwise never get an audience?

The answers to the above are probably yes, maybe and no, in that order. But by pushing the names of the soap stars to the top of the list, the press officers are only managing to detract from the quality of the rest of the production, reducing the quality of the writing and performances of their fellow actors to minor, almost irrelevant, details. It's insulting to audiences to imply that this is the only reason they would want to come and see a production, or is something that they put so much weight on that it will become a decisive factor in their decision, and it's insulting to the other people involved in the production who have collectively created finished products that are greater than the sum of any of their individual parts.

I don't blame Duffy or Collins for this, as I doubt that either of them insisted that they be given top billing, or that either of them believe they are going to be the difference between the plays succeeding or failing, but I do think that the press officers who believed that the presence of an ex-soap star was the thing they needed to major on, should take a close look at themselves. If the soap star is the only reason they'd go to see a play, they are in the wrong job. If they think it's the only reason other people would go and see a play, then they are dismissing the audience and treating them with a patronising contempt that most of them don't deserve.

Of course, if I'm wrong and they're right, and this is what you have to do to get an audience, then maybe writers everywhere should just give up, and resign ourselves to a world where content is unimportant as long as the words 'starring that bloke or woman from the telly' can be included in the promotional material.

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