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Changing of the guard

Last week, The Guardsman opened in the West End. Next week it will close. Here, its star Michael Pennington reveals what went wrong

Thursday October 19, 2000
The Guardian

John Gielgud once said that you work harder at your failures than your successes, and since any play is a great experiment, it's important to look back and see what went wrong. His much-loved voice rings in my ears this week.

The work itself is a private business, and nobody else is much interested in that. But the story behind The Guardsman's closure is already seeping out into the public domain and looks likely, unlike the show, to run and run. So: no witch-hunt, but some facts.

The producer of the play is Paddy Wilson. His temporary landlords at the Albery are the Ambassadors Theatre Group. The critical reception for the show has been poor, but not that poor - the Times was good, the Guardian too to some extent, and there have been good television reviews. The word-of-mouth is good, and advance bookings have built healthily since the first performance on October 4. Under normal circumstances, the show could have looked forward to an honourable two or three month run.

As it turns out, it never really had a chance. Before The Guardsman opened, plans appear to have been already advanced to bring The Mystery of Charles Dickens into the Albery early in November. During its last week on tour, The Guardsman company and staff were requested by Paddy Wilson to take a salary cut, which in the case of some of the principals amounted to 80% of their negotiated fees, although the advance was not bad for a new and unfamiliar play. The proposal was that the cast would return to their original salaries in week three of the London run, and be reimbursed what they had deferred for the first two weeks by the end of week six. The reality was that the sixth week was unlikely to be available to us; the third barely. Paddy Wilson assures me that he didn't know this.

The company eventually agreed to the deferment. In this event, all it has really achieved is to reduce Paddy Wilson's costs on the show's demise.

Without a rush on the box office, there seem to have been no refunds available to "nurse" the production through its critical first two weeks. Paddy Wilson attributes the problem to the loss of an investor halfway through the pre-London tour (a loss that Lady Bracknell might have described as "careless"); I am not convinced that the show's investment base was secure from the start. To me, there were signs of under-resource and false economies even then; and Equity, who require a deposit equivalent to two weeks' actors' salaries at the beginning of such a project, didn't get it until just before the West End opening.

The relationship between a producer and a theatre owner is a complicated one; Ambassadors Theatre Group had hesitations about the show's "legs" in any case. Suppose they had doubts about receiving their due rents from the producer as well, and you can well see that they might begin to make other arrangements for the Albery and to see the Guardsman as a brief "filler".

Still, a show which clearly had limited but still honourable expectations in the West End has sunk almost without trace. As I write, some of those associated with the production are still owed money, quite apart from the pay deferment. All are embarrassed to be the last to hear what much of London seemed to know. Producers are a hardy and courageous lot in a high-risk business, and theatre-owners need to keep their lights on, but it can be difficult to judge how unlucky a producer has to be before he is to blame. For a hard-working cast and staff, it can be difficult, too, to detect the fault-lines beneath, let alone know what to do about them. For both parties, as Gielgud said, failure can be fascinating. RIP.

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