Ipswich Co-op Juniors and the show that dare not speak its name

Good publicity has turned Andrew Lloyd-Webber's West End classic Cats into the world's longest runni

Good publicity has turned Andrew Lloyd-Webber's West End classic Cats into the world's longest running musical. - Credit: PA

It’s midnight. There’s not a sound on the pavement. You’re standing outside a theatre; withered leaves are collecting at your feet. Lamps illuminate the poster hoardings which should be shouting the name of the current production – except that the space is empty.

The Co-op Juniors are renowned for putting on first class shows

The Co-op Juniors are renowned for putting on first class shows - Credit: Mike Kwasniak Photography 2011

Is the theatre closed? Has the recession claimed another victim? No. The theatre is hale and hearty. It’s desperate to sell you a ticket. It just can’t tell you what that production is called.

This is the situation that the Ipswich Co-op Juniors and the New Wolsey Theatre find themselves in. In July the Co-op Juniors are staging the regional premiere of a major musical. It’s quite a coup. They are very excited about it and are absolutely thrilled they have been given the opportunity to stage what should be a wonderful crowd-pulling show. The problem is that under the terms of the licence they can’t advertise the show in the theatre or distribute leaflets with the show’s name on.

It’s a vexing situation because by the nature of the show it’s an expensive production to stage and they need to sell every ticket they can just to break even.

Alan Ayres, the Co-op Juniors’ grandmaster at publicity, is surprisingly chipper. It’s annoying, he admits, but there are ways round it. You can always work the system – you can create interest around the mystery.

The biggest hurdle is that they can’t name the show on the New Wolsey’s website, the place where they are selling the tickets. Alan explains that the New Wolsey can offer hints at the show and point audiences to the Ipswich Co-op Juniors website, where the show can be named, but anyone who wants to buy a ticket then has to go back to the New Wolsey.

The situation seems absurd but that’s the terms of the licence. If you want to stage the show, you have to abide by the rules imposed by the copyright holders. It seems the problem rests in the fact that the licence is for a children’s or schools’ version of the show and so publicity would normally be by word of mouth or letters home to parents.

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But this publicity ban doesn’t extend to all schools’ productions. When the Co-op Juniors were granted a schools’ licence to do Les Miserables they could shout about it as much as they wanted – indeed, the Children’s Theatre Company are doing their version of the show at the New Wolsey just a couple of weeks after the Co-op Juniors’ feline-focused dance show.

As Alan knows, there is more than one way to skin a cat and getting people talking about a show is publicity that money cannot buy. The trick is to turn talk into tickets – which is not easy in these cash-strapped times. You have to make the show a must-see event.

But, in the 21st Century, the way shows are sold is changing. We have seen West End shows develop and grow – despite poor or lukewarm reviews by critics – fed by fans and by the clever use of electronic media to target new audiences.

Wicked is a classic case in point. It opened in late 2006 to fairly dismissive reviews and, buoyed by expectant audiences fuelled by tales of the sell-out Broadway run and stunning performances by the London cast, turned into a blockbuster hit.

The same is happening with The Book of Mormon, the new West End musical by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Their sharp satire on the role of missionaries was a huge hit in the US but was savaged by the majority of London’s theatre critics last week. However, a canny marketing campaign on Facebook and Twitter, backing up an already huge sense of expectation, led to the musical bagging a new West End box office record as thousands of people scrambled to book tickets to the show.

This flies in the face of perceived wisdom, where a large number of negative reviews would be expected to severely dent ticket sales and may even send the show back to the drawing board for significant re-writes – as with Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Phantom sequel Love Never Dies.

But it shows the power of the audience and demonstrates how electronic media can reach new audiences. Whereas Wicked was supported by the theatre faithful, The Book of Mormon is being targeted at new audiences – younger, non-traditional audiences – particularly young men and lovers of the scatologically irreverent cartoon series South Park.

It proves that if a show knows its audience, targeted electronic media can bypass the traditional theatre critic. The real acid test lies in the second six months and then the second year of a production’s run, when the targeted audience runs out. Will The Book of Mormon be another Avenue Q and prove itself to be an inventive, boundary-breaking type of show which will develop a long-lived cult audience which will sustain it over many years? I don’t know – it’s too early to tell – but whatever its fate the success of the current batch of ticket sales demonstrates quite clearly that having a good idea for a show, casting talented actors and having an imaginative director is no longer enough. Canny marketing is now an absolute necessity.

This will come as welcome news to the Ipswich Co-op Juniors, who need to look beyond the families of their members to make their regional premiere pay. But getting people talking about a show is a good first step. It’s all about creating a must-see atmosphere. It helps if the show is actually good, because it will provide a profit over a good number of years, but even if it is a flash in the pan, getting the marketing right will at least allow a show to cover its costs.

Full credit has to be given to Alan Ayres and the Co-op Juniors for not cat-erwauling about their handicap and I am sure they have lots of ideas how to turn the situation to their advantage. But the aggravating part of the problem is, they know they would have an instant sell-out on their hands if they could but put a name to their glorious regional premiere. Instead they are having to come up with a way of selling a show whose identity must remain a veiled secret.

I realise that this is to stop non-children’s performances but there has to be a better way of doing this – as the more lenient rules for Les Mis prove.

Anyway, if you want to step out for a fur-filled, feline fantasy evening, then dance along to The New Wolsey Theatre from July 3-6, where you will be treated to a magical show that will no doubt linger in your memory for a long time to come – all thanks to that magical Mr Mistoffelees.