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

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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.

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