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1927 at the National Theatre: a strategic move or just common sense?

Posted on 07 September 2011 Written by

The National Theatre has announced its Autumn/Winter season of shows, and whilst in true NT fashion there are the usual star-studded performances (Lenny Henry and Simon Russel Beale) and top directors (Dominic Cooke, Danny Boyd and of course Nick Hytner), there is a surprising Christmas show in the mix. This year the Cottseloe Theatre will be on the tour path of 1927′s production of The Animal and Children Took To The Streets taking up a three-week run, alongside Daniel Kitson’s solo piece It’s Always Right Now, Until It’s Later.

I first saw The Animal and Children Took To The Streets at this year’s Latitude Festival having sadly missed the initial run at the Battersea Arts Centre, which sold out. On a Saturday night I joined a huge crowd of people at the theatre tent to witness what was to become my highlight of the festival. Whilst sitting on the back row of the theatre tent, I was literally transfixed by the production. It is breathtakingly skillful and inventive and like nothing I had seen before. I was hooked. Before I knew it, the Edinburgh Festival wheels were moving and 1927 was playing for the month at the Pleasance Coutyard, this time as part of the British Council Edinburgh Showcase (you can read my review here).

Now the journey of this production is an interesting one to think about. From its first production, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, which played at BAC in 2008, the company was a hit. This debut led to it being co-comissioned by BAC, Malthouse Theatre Melbourne and The ShowRoom, University of Chichester to create The Animals and Children Took To The Streets. The work naturally grew out of the input of these commissioning theatres, and had its premier at the Sydney Opera House, before moving to the Malthouse Theatre and finally back to home turf at BAC. This is logical, although the Sydney Opera House did come as a surprise to me (and I only learnt this after writing the bulk of this blog). The sub-sequential tour also seems logical, hitting upon festivals that thrive off the kind of new imaginative work that 1927 has brought to its work, but the announcement of the NT Christmas run has me stumped.

The reason is quite simple: the NT’s audience is not one I imagine to be flocking to witness The Animal and Children Took To The Streets. In fact, I couldn’t imagine an audience more out of reach for this show. The BAC, Latitude Festival, Edinburgh Fringe Festival… there is a certain energy and life to these places. They invoke a certain audience who like to be challenged, or at least be willing to be challenged.

Now, of course I’m not going to ignore the space that the production will inhabit. The Cottesloe Theatre is often considered the experimental space for the NT, presenting an eclectic work, and I have to admit that the productions I’ve seen here are often the most exciting from the building. The recent London Road is a fine example of the sort of gamble that the NT can take – who would have thought that a verbatim musical about a serial killer in Ipswich could sell out and include an extended run? So is The Animal and Children Took To The Streets a gamble for the NT? Is it a way of bringing in an audience it might not already get?

I’ve thought about this a lot since the announcement. I’ve tried to think of other work that the NT does that could match this programming. The Watch This Space season that plays outside the front of the NT seems like a more experimental programme, but that is mostly because it’s all free, and the audience are those that drift by on the South Bank, there’s no financial risk. Then I think of Matthew Robins, a brilliant puppeteer whose shadow puppetry was shown on the Fly Tower of the theatre during the Fly Films season, but again this was outside the building.

You could of course look at it as a way of the NT experimenting slightly with its audience, willing to push them towards some work that they might not expect from it. Or, on the flip side, perhaps I’m over-thinking the whole situation and instead should just see the NT as a stopping-off point along the 1927 tour. But then when did the NTbecome just another tour venue? So perhaps it’s a clever move to bring in an audience, I imagine a younger audience, one that the NT hopes would return again.

Whatever the reasoning behind the companies choosing to work together, whilst slightly bizarre, it can only be a good thing. The Animal and Children Took To The Streets is an exceptional production, and the more people who get to see the work, the better. If the NT’s often older audience come to see it and love it, then excellent – they’re broadening their experiences of theatre. If young people come flooding through the doors thinking that they never knew theatre could be so cool (because let’s face it, any production that uses such funky animation has got to be called cool), then excellent. It’s been obvious that since the company emerged it was destined for greatness. This step into the NT is a stamp of that level of excellence, and I commend them for it. But it just makes me wonder… if you get programmed at the National Theatre, what’s next? How do you further this with such a young emerging company? Perhaps you don’t, perhaps I’m just over thinking this whole thing, but I hope I’ve unearthed something to be talked about.

So, what do you think? Is the Christmas run of 1927′s production of The Animal and Children Took To The Streets a strategic move on both sides? Or is it simply someone at the National Theatre seeing the excellence in a company that deserves a bigger platform? Discuss.

Jake Orr

Jake Orr

Jake is the Artistic Director and Founder of A Younger Theatre. He is a freelance writer and blogger, a theatre marketer and a digital producer. He is also Co-Curator of Dialogue.

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9 Comments For This Post

  1. Lois Says:

    I agree Jake – think it’s an interesting move which will hopefully see the audiences of both parties grow and diversify. I suppose we shall have to see!

    You question where else the NT’s programming reflects this decision, and I think the Double Feature season is another interesting way that the NT has broadened their output recently. I loved Double Feature, can’t wait for 1927 and hope for more evenings like this so am interested in seeing how the NT takes it forward.

  2. Jake Orr Says:

    The Double Feature Season was indeed a different direction for the NT, but I do wonder how much of this was felt as a ‘different direction’ based upon the venue choice. The Paint Frame is a great space, and I think they used it well. Bringing audiences into that space was brilliant because it took you to a whole different area of the building. Did the shows offer something completely different? I’m not entirely convinced (although I only saw 2 of the 4 shows). It does have a different feel to it, and I know the NT were marketing to a different age range especially young people.

    Then again… the Paint Frame only became an option when London Road got extended…

  3. Tom Says:

    I haven’t seen this 1927 show but I did see Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Very odd but very ingenious at the same time. I think the decision to bring the company into a major NT space is recognising the company’s very clear talent (remember the NT do have some history supporting these types of companies in early stages… see Punchdrunk) and someone there has a feeling it may just work. And it might. But of course it’s a risk with the NT’s audience, however this sort of calculated and supportive risk-taking is exactly what should be happening at the NT alongside the more epic work.

  4. Rev Stan Says:

    Haven’t seen the show but I agree with Tom, it surely must be recognition for interesting and innovative work. I’m not in a position to judge whether you are stereotyping the NT audience after all I’m a forty year old foguey. However surely one the of the major barriers to young people going to the theatre is the cost and the NT certainly seems to do as much as it can to overcome that.

  5. AJ Says:

    This blog typifies the appallingly ignorant and badly researched editorial on this site.

    While the NT may have a core audience of older, regular theatregoers, it’s ridiculous to assert that the entire audience for the 2000 seats or so it fills every night are a single homogemous group. Every time I’m at the NT (with the possible exception of popular plays in the Cottesloe which seem to sell out to their members) I see a huge range of people of different ages and backgrounds, who I imagine – like me – see a wide range of theatre. The NT is just part of my cultural world, and I pick and choose productions which take my fancy, regardless of genre.

    It’s really not that uncommon for the NT to have visiting companies, either. Off the top of my head, in recent years there have been visits and/or co-productions by DV8, Headlong, Steppenwolf, Handspring, Akram Khan, Kneehigh – plus Live Theatre and Royal and Derngate. Inua Ellams and now Daniel Kitson have presented one man shows. I really don’t see the visit by 1927 as remarkable at all: the production has been a huge artistic success wherever it’s been presented in the world, including – as you have found out – the Sydney Opera House! In programming terms, it adds some variety to the NT’s Cottesloe season, and its quality is indisputable.

    I also think it’s hilarious that you think the audiences at Edinburgh and Latitude are less elitist than those at the NT. Latitude is so full of Radio 4 listeners with folding chairs that anyone who stayed up late the night before will struggle to beat them to the theatre in tent in time to catch anything, whilst Edinburgh is not only eye-wateringly expensive, but also full of the most hardcore arts attenders of all.

    1927 are a young company, but they obviously recognise that it’s important to have their work seen by a wide audience, who will appreciate it regardless of their age and background. They don’t want to rot in the self-restricting, dead-end ghetto of ‘young people’s theatre’. Unfortunately, as this blog confirms, you’re only to keen to stay there.

  6. AJ Says:

    …and as Tom says, the NT have also supported Punchdrunk. And Shunt. And Rabbit. I could go on.

  7. Jake Orr Says:

    Hey AJ,

    Thanks for the comment.

    I wasn’t trying to assert that the entire audience at the National Theatre are of a certain type. I only have to look at the vast amount of outreach and educational work that they do to see that they also incorporate large volumes of young people (normally with incentives such as cheaper tickets, workshops etc – See Entry Pass). However there have been considerable amounts of time when I had sat in the audience and noticed a particular demographic within the audience, as you state ‘a core audience of older, regular theatregoers’. It does however have a dedicated returning audience of a certain demographic and I question how the work of 1927 will be received.

    This blog was not aimed at targeting the audience, but also a questioning (and I do mean this to provoke questions and answers) at where 1927′s production has arisen from (The Battersea Arts Centre), where it has gone (Latitude, Edinburgh – and yes Sydney Opera House), and where will it go next (Beyond National Theatre?). For a young company, I think this opportunity is fantastic, in fact, I am elated for the company, and you are right in affirming as Tom suggests that this is a sign of their outstanding work. If you read my review of their show you will see how taken I am with it.

    With regards to the visiting companies at the NT in recent years, your list is a little misleading… out of all of those companies only Steppenwolf, Akram Khan, Daniel Kitson, and Inua Ellams can be called ‘visiting companies. The rest have all been co-produced by the National Theatre. Khan has had an extensive relationship with the NT, performing numerous times, Steppenwolf is a major producing venue whose link up with the NT seems somewhat logical. As for Ellams and Kitson, well… they have all been programmed into the Cottesloe, much like 1927 have as a form of an experiment, and have only really been a ‘stopping-ground’ for the production before heading off elsewhere.

    It is this that intrigues me about 1927 coming to the NT… why programme work such as this? Perhaps the answer is obvious – as the ‘Nations’ biggest theatre that represents the ‘Nations’ body of work, it should be celebrating the depth of work across all genres and forms and presenting it. Just seems strange to me that it doesn’t happen that often, or in the case of the NT Studio, it happens behind closed doors.

    Finally AJ, it’s great to hear that you are a supporter of AYT having asserted that you understand the breadth of work that we write here. I’m sure therefore you will see that we not only celebrate the ‘dead-end ghetto of ‘young people’s theatre”, but also continually support and encourage other young people to explore the vast amounts of ‘non-young people’s theatre’, but I guess you already knew this from your remark in your comment. It’s just a shame that we even have to class it into ‘young people’s theatre’ and ‘non-young people’s theatre’…

    Jake
    Editor and Founder
    A Younger Theatre

  8. AJ Says:

    “I couldn’t imagine an audience more out of reach for this show. The BAC, Latitude Festival, Edinburgh Fringe Festival… there is a certain energy and life to these places. They invoke a certain audience who like to be challenged, or at least be willing to be challenged.”

    This is how the above paragraph from your blog post reads:
    - The NT feels like a graveyard
    - NT audiences don’t like to be challenged

    That is a ridiculous statement to make.

    On the point of visiting productions vs. co-productions, I think you’re over-stressing this – a co-production is often simply a case of an organisation stumping up some money or resources to co-fund a production: it doesn’t mean the organisation has creative control. Viz the Barbican being credited as co-producer in a large number of the productions it presents as BITE. In my list above, it’s actually only the Handspring, Headlong and Kneehigh (via Tom Morris’ involvement) where the productions had any significant creative contribution from the NT, and even then it was mostly in the sense of contributing technical skills and resources.

    My point is that the NT isn’t a fortress closed to outside talent, and so 1927′s visit is totally unremarkable. I think that because of your emotional attachment to the show, it somehow upsets or offends you to think that the NT and its apparently dribbling senile audience is ‘taking ownership’ of the production by programming it. But in fact all that has happened is that an exemplary visiting production has been recognised as such by an organisation which – for the mostpart – produces its own shows. This is hardly a departure.

    You totally missed my point about young people’s theatre, which was that to classify theatre as such (especially to self-classify) is totally unproductive. Fortunately 1927 don’t do this – but you seem keen to, implying that older audiences will be shocked or overawed by the production. This is just ageist. After all, it is only people in the NT’s older audience who will have experienced the Cottesloe’s bonkers, 8 hour inaugral production by Ken Campbell!

    My point is that you don’t have a point. And that perhaps you should take the time to formulate reasoned arguments before slopping articles on to the internet.

    P.S. Just to be a total pedant, Daniel Kitson is in the Lyttelton.

  9. David Appleton Says:

    The 1927 Animals and Children, Cottesloe, ticket sales opened to the public yesterday morning ( 20th ) and had sold out completely by the afternoon.

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