February 8, 2013 7:39 pm

‘I don’t want the West End left behind’

Commercial theatre needn’t play safe
Sonia Friedman in her London office©Richard Pohle

Sonia Friedman in her London office

In theatre producer Sonia Friedman’s office, the walls are packed with framed posters from the plays she has produced, many of them standout recent successes of the West End. On a bookshelf there’s a picture of her with the Irish playwright Brian Friel. That must have been like meeting God, I say. She laughs. “Meeting Harold Pinter was like meeting God,” she says.

These mementoes, she says, keep her on her toes; so too the location of her office, which nestles above London’s Duke of York’s Theatre. “I have to work in a theatre,” she says, as she settles into a chair to discuss where the West End is headed. “I pass the stage every day; I see audiences every day. It reminds me what I’m doing.”

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In the decade since she launched Sonia Friedman Productions, Friedman has become one of the most successful and daring producers in commercial theatre, championing new writing and high-quality straight plays with eye-catching casts. Among the posters on the walls are Much Ado About Nothing (with David Tennant and Catherine Tate), All My Sons (with David Suchet) and Jerusalem (with Mark Rylance).

But Friedman resists pigeonholing. She also produced the feel-good musical Legally Blonde. And she currently has two strikingly contrasting new shows jostling for a space on the wall: Pinter’s enigmatic three-hander Old Times and the British premiere of the joyously irreverent Broadway musical The Book of Mormon.

“In a sense they couldn’t be more different,” agrees Friedman. “But they’re both brilliant pieces of writing. And where they are also similar is that on paper neither should be commercial.”

That whiff of jeopardy seems to be irresistible to her. “For me [risk] is like a drug,” she admits cheerfully. “It’s what keeps you going.”

Her career is peppered with successes that on paper looked chancey, right from the first show she produced on Shaftesbury Avenue in 1997, Mark Ravenhill’s satire of consumerism, Shopping and Fucking. One of her riskiest moves was taking Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem to Broadway in 2011. Although a hit in London, there was no guarantee that this wild, quintessentially English yarn about a belligerent outcast would transfer happily. Friedman went ahead.

“I felt that that performance [by Mark Rylance] and that play just had to be seen by a wider audience,” she says. “And I firmly believed that it was big enough to transcend its Britishness. I felt, ‘This is a masterpiece; this will go down in history.’ It sounds pretentious but it did feel I had to do it – and no one else was going to. And that usually seems to be where I step in. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t!”

The Book of Mormon makes the journey in the opposite direction. Recipient of nine Tony Awards on Broadway, it has to meet a new audience in London. Friedman says she is not taking anything for granted but that its appeal transcends its subject matter.

“It’s clever enough to appeal to a wide audience because of its wit,” she argues. “It is peppered with this fantastic irreverence, but it’s a piece about faith and the power of faith. And along the way they push quite a few buttons.”

In person, Friedman is approachable, down-to-earth and astute. But she’s also sharp as a pin and says she likes the producer’s combination of creative thinking and business sense. The daughter of a violinist and a pianist, she started out at the National Theatre. She co-founded Out of Joint theatre company with Max Stafford-Clark in 1993, then moved into commercial production, first with the Ambassador Theatre Group, of which SFP is a subsidiary.

Her background has left her with a love of new plays and a deep respect for the subsidised sector and its essential role in the health of theatre, film, television and radio. But she also prizes the West End and suggests that commercial theatre doesn’t have to play safe. She would like to see more West End theatres being run by artistic directors and says repertory programming might give actors flexibility. The buildings themselves, with their gilt and velvet, are beautiful, she says, but they “need to evolve”.

“I think our spaces should be used better: we need to rethink the configurations. All our theatres being proscenium arch, velvet spaces limits the possibilities for the directors, designers and writers. If we want to create dynamic, diverse work, we’re going to have to face that issue. I don’t want the West End to get left behind.”

The culture of the West End has changed, with increasing numbers of shows transferring from subsidised theatres. Friedman suggests that the commercial sector needs to respond by initiating innovative work. She has ideas about encouraging this but is initially reluctant to discuss them, given the economic climate: “Now is not the time to have this debate when you’ve got theatres being shut down.”

Pressed, she will explain, but stresses that she’s not looking to divert money from subsidised theatre; her idea is one for a much healthier economic environment: “The thought would be that, in the same way that the subsidised theatres are being forced to think commercially, the Arts Council itself could be encouraged to think commercially. So the Arts Council would support a new play in the West End and, the moment the play paid back, that would go straight back to the Arts Council. So in fact it would act like a sort of investment.”

Friedman is not very good at relaxing, she admits. She likes long walks with her dog. Does she cook? She hoots with laughter: “No! That’s a family joke. My sister Maria tells this story about once opening my oven to find all my cookbooks in there.”

Rather, satisfaction for her comes at the back of an auditorium. Her favourite audience experiences are at comedies. “I just love hearing waves of laughter,” she says. “You see people coming in cold, moody, grey; you see them leaving beaming. And I think that’s something we in the West End excel at.”

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‘Old Times’, Harold Pinter Theatre, London until April 6, www.oldtimestheplay.com; ‘The Book of Mormon’, Prince of Wales Theatre, London, from Feb 25, www.bookofmormonlondon.com

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