Lace up your silk dressing gown, paint the pansitck an inch thick and be-arm yourself with rapier, for the west end is in crisis! Avaunt! Dame Judi has been captured by hobbits, bound in a straightjacket of many colours and fed to Simba. Alack! Hordes of Northern boys are ballet-dancing down Avenue Q singing the song of angry men, armed with hairspray and stomping on Chekov.
It's that time again. Commissioning editors are aweary, and real-life crises involving mine-mutilated children at ravaged borders are just that bit too crisis-esque, so pronouncements of west end apocalypse are wheeled atop the creaking machina ex deus of journalism onto the shabby stage of theatreland. It's true that camp musicals dominate Soho as straight plays close down quicker than a homophobe on Hampstead Heath. It's also sadly true that regional rep theatre has generally retired to a garret to drink gin and reminisce about the salad days whilst thumbing faded playbills -and the possible imment demise of one of the last survivors, the Bristol Old Vic, is a real tragedy.
But hyperbolic generalisations are a barrier to genuine, mature discussions about how to steer an industry that is by its nature insecure and constantly evolving. Talk of crisis leads to 'solutions', such as Michael Billington mooting Jonathan Kent to 'save' the west end, which seems a little, well, pants, not to mention unrealistic. Why establish our best, bold fringe and freelance directors - Thea Sharrock, Dominic Cooke, Katie Mitchell, Rachel Kavanaugh - as artistic overseers of west end theatres when they are strengthening many better and more varied venues? And aren't we forgetting something here - the quality of the audience, as well as of the play?
Without an engaged, questioning audience, theatre is a load of pretty people wanking their souls, wearing tights. The delicious AA Gill's recent attack on critics rings true in an industry where expensive tickets too often buy bum-numbing nonsense - a disservice to the practitioners, who have no reliable critical benchmarks to refer or aspire to, as well as the rapidly disillusioned audience. But there are also great, great shows ringing through empty auditoria, because watching theatre requires effort, even discipline, and cringing Web 2.0 Cowrdz(beta) that we are, prolonged concentration and real-life interaction is a painful thing.
If the west end is already infantilised, why not purposefully make it into a place where kids can learn how to be an audience: to listen, to watch, to feel. Sure, keep spectacular shows for families, but follow the example of recent offerings from the NT such as His Dark Materials and Coram Boy which combine action and effects with sophistication, ambiguity and good acting.
Then let those cut-above crowd-pleasers finance themselves, and channel funds into regional and London fringe theatres and companies so they will have the freedom to keep producing challenging, demanding shows for those young audiences to graduate to. Let the west end be westendy and other venues retain their talent and build on their strengthening identites.
But swounds! We've been distracted! Once more into the breach! Simon Russell Beale is being guillotined by a greasy singing nun.