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Matt 'n' Madge 'n' Gwyn 'n' Gill Go West

Dateline: 26th May, 2002

One upon a time, in a far-off land across the big ocean, there was a paradise called Hollywood. The people who lived there were all beautiful and talented, famed throughout the whole wide world, and loved and envied by everybody.

However one fateful day, the happiness of that fabled country was disturbed, for doubt crept in amongst the people of that happy land. They began to wonder, "Am I really beautiful and talented?" and their joy began to fade. Doubt gnawed at them, and they began to think that they were surrounded by flatterers. An evil spirit was abroad, which whispered in their ears, haunted their dreams, so that they began to think that they had to prove themselves to be beautiful and talented.

They began to dismiss the words of the flatterers and fawners, and slowly, one by one, they made the mystical journey "up West" to prove to the world and themselves that they were truly worthy of their name - stars.

I'm afraid, dear reader, that I cannot tell you that they lived happily ever after (which, of course, is how all good stories are supposed to end) for this story is not yet finished. It is, in truth, a never-ending story.

Of course, it used to be the other way round: everyone wanted to go to Hollywood, where one picture could make you a big, big star and bring in the millions. Now, however, there is insecurity in Hollywood and many stars feel the need to prove their acting credentials and so they head to the West End, for, just as Hollywood is the Mecca of the film world and Broadway of the world of musicals, so London's West End is the place to be for those who would be ajudged an actor.

Many and notable have been the names which have come to hunt this Holy Grail in recent years: some have gone away with reputation enhanced and others with tail between legs. Currently we have Matt Damon, Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow treading the hallowed boards of the West End. How are they faring?

If we are to judge by the critics, Paltrow is well ahead.

"There was no doubt whatever that Paltrow thoroughly deserved her standing ovation," said Charles Spencer in the Telegraph, whilst the Guardian's Michael Billington proclaimed, "Auburn has created a great part, which Paltrow fills to overflowing. In short, she is not just a star: she can really act." Ian Youngs of BBC Online wrote, "She had charisma and confidence, proving as capable on stage as she is on screen and disappointing those hoping for some obvious mistakes."

And our own Philip Fisher likes her too: "The good news is that despite relatively little stage experience she carries it off well. She catches the combination of strong supporter of her father with vulnerability when things go wrong."

So, one up for Gwyneth Paltrow and one in the eye for the critic who wrote, before the opening performance, that her "Streep-like" facility for accents would not save her on the London stage.

Not so good, however, for Matt Damon. One critic described his performance as "promising" and suggests a longer apprenticeship. But no disaster there, and This Is Our Youth is doing well.

But what of Ms Cicerone - Madge - Madonna?

"They gave Madonna a standing ovation," says Michael Billington." But, since her performance in David Williamson's comedy is that of a dogged trier lacking in technique or mystery, the gesture is meaningless: what the audience is applauding is not achievement but some hollow concept of celebrity."

Benedict Nightingale in the Times is as dismissive: "Madonna's acting, though it strengthens as the evening progresses, is a bit like her neat little trench-coat: pale, wan, lacking in colour."

The Standard's Nicholas de Jongh is more cruel: "She looks not much more at home on stage than a gazelle would in Kensington Gardens," and goes on, "It's a case, however, of bravery triumphing over good sense... A triumph of energy and sexiness, but not enough more."

Charles Spencer is kinder: "While she isn't going to give Nicole Kidman or Gwyneth Paltrow any sleepless nights worrying about the competition, her performance is far from the disaster many were predicting and some were maliciously hoping for. In the final analysis Madonna strikes me as being about as good as the play – OK but hardly sensational."

And Gill? Well, Gillian Anderson will be the next to arrive in the West End. Who knows? Will she join the successful - Paltrow, Kidman, Spacey, Turner - or will she follow Madonna?

Perhaps the more important question, which has been exercising contributors to our Forum, is what does all this mean for British theatre? Does it somehow devalue the West End? Is it attracting the wrong sort of audience, those who are more interested in celebrity than in theatre?

It probably is, but then, that's the West End. Look at any West End audience and ask how many are theatre enthusiasts and how many are there because a visit to a West End theatre is part and parcel of a trip to London. If the show's a musical, then the latter will certainly dominate; they'll form a substantial proportion of other audiences, too, especially where the cast is full of well-known names, perhaps from film, perhaps from TV.

Take a play with Judi Dench, for example: how many of the audience are there because it's Dame Judi? I don't know the answer, but I bet it's a significant number. Do we complain about that? Do we think that devalues British theatre? Of course we don't!

The West End is, I believe, Britain's theatre showcase. If a non-theatregoer sees Dench or Madonna or Kidman or any star from anywhere in a West End show and is then moved to visit their local theatre, surely this is a good thing? Let's be honest: real theatre happens on the South Bank, at the Barbican, in Hammersmith and Hampstead, on the London Fringe, in Leeds, Bristol, Birmingham, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and all the other regional centres of theatrical excellence.

If John and Joanne A. Tourist are moved to go to their local theatre (even if it's an amateur theatre) because they've seen Madonna in London, everyone wins.

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©Peter Lathan 2001