Ross Clark Ross Clark

Why one-man plays are all the rage

Sarah Snook wins Best Actress at the Emmys for her one-woman play The Picture of Dorian Gray (Credit: Getty Images)

Well, it’s nice to feel on trend. The Today programme this morning carried an item on the popularity of one-man and one-woman theatre shows, following on from the success of two such shows in the Olivier Awards: Sarah Snook in The Picture of Dorian Gray and Andrew Scott in Vanya. Only in passing did they mention a rather important factor in all this: money. If you’re trying not to haemorrhage cash in a post-Covid world, it helps if you can cut your wage bill.

I should know. Straightened times call for inventiveness – which is one of the reasons why my latest venture into musical theatre, A Lark, about the Ralph Vaughan-Williams’ affair with a woman 40 years his junior (while he was still married to his first wife) takes the form of a one-woman show. It is a rather charming story because it is not all about betrayal and ratting on your partner: Vaughan-Williams remained deeply loyal to his first wife, by then stricken with arthritis, even when carrying on with a young poet, Ursula Wood, who had written to him opportunistically in what might have seemed the vain hope of having him set one of her poems to music. The three-way tension between the three of them in fascinating. But I would be fibbing if I didn’t admit that part of the attraction lay in devising a show, told from Ursula’s point of view, which offered the opportunity to put on a musical theatre production with less financial risk.

When I first went to see a director about putting on a musical play 15 years ago he advised me to keep it down to ten actors because that is all a regional theatre would be able to afford. That seems a remarkable luxury now. By the time I put on my first show, in 2015 – with nine people on stage – it was rare to see a professional show in a regional theatre with more than four actors.

One-actor shows are the next progression – possibly a last attempt to keep theatre alive. As a sign of the way things are going, my show is a rather lovely studio theatre created out in a second world war Nissen hut in the car park of Dorking Halls – while the main theatre plays host on successive nights to a Queen tribute band followed by a Beatles tribute band. The economics of theatre never were especially attractive, but it has become seriously difficult to afford to put on a show. Virtually everything you see has a sugar daddy of some sort: either wealthy benefactors of the dreaded Arts Council (although try accessing that source of money if you can’t tick the right woke boxes on the application form). That includes the West End, where around one in ten shows make a profit. I went to see a show recently where the writer-cum-producer admitted he was going lose the best part of £50,000 even if he sold every ticket. Ouch!

Maybe one-actor shows are just what live theatre needs to keep going – hopefully anyway. You don’t need a huge grasp of arithmetic to work out you can’t really go any lower than that.

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