It’s the size of a Hackney bedsit but the ambience is cosily expensive. Sonia Friedman’s tiny office above the Duke of York’s Theatre in St Martin’s Lane has warm, pinkish lighting and elegant armchairs with thick, deep cushions. The dark wallpaper is obscured by framed posters of hit West End shows. Sprawled across the sofa there’s a touch of pure kitsch: a six-year-old poodle, snuffling and dozing, whose fluffy white forelegs are sheathed in the armlets of a scarlet tank top. His name is Teddy and he looks like the victim of a stag-night prank contentedly sleeping off his hangover.
Opposite me sits Sonia Friedman — pretty, blonde, in her mid-40s — who occupies a formidable position as one of the West End’s leading producers. We have no specific subject to discuss but Harold Pinter crops up almost immediately.
‘I’ve been obsessed with his work ever since I started to study plays,’ she says. In her early 20s, as a stage manager at the National Theatre, she was attached to a production Pinter was directing. Her job was to annotate his notes. ‘One day, he leaned across and said to me, “I think we need a pause there.”’ That night, she rushed home and telephoned all her friends. ‘Guess what! Harold Pinter asked me to write “pause”.’
She got to know him better when she began staging his work in the West End. In 2007, she produced The Dumb Waiter starring Lee Evans and Jason Isaacs. The following year her production of No Man’s Land, starring Michael Gambon, drew this accolade from Pinter. ‘It is the definitive production.’ By then he was entering the final stages of his terminal illness and he asked Gambon to read a speech from the play at his funeral. Two years ago, Friedman produced Betrayal, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, at the Comedy Theatre, which had just been renamed in the playwright’s honour.
‘Kristin is just extraordinary in Pinter. And when we were doing Betrayal, she said to me, “What’s next, what’s next?”’ Here, Friedman impersonates a little girl excitedly clapping her hands, as if greeting the arrival of her birthday cake. ‘So I said, “Old Times.” And Old Times it was.’ The production is in the hands of Ian Rickson, ‘one of Pinter’s favourite directors’, and it’s evident that he shares Friedman’s fanatical devotion to the master. Each day, before work begins on the play, Rickson lays out one of Pinter’s old suitcases in the rehearsal space, alongside a pen and a notebook. These relics were bequeathed to Rickson in the playwright’s will. It all sounds slightly spooky. But, in one sense, it’s a breakthrough for the West End: the first play to be co-directed by the author from beyond the grave. I ask if we can expect more of Pinter’s work from Friedman’s dream team of worshippers. ‘I hope so,’ she says. ‘I just want to produce every Pinter there is.’
Friedman rose fast — and almost accidentally — to the peak of her profession. (And while it’s common for high fliers to claim that chance propelled them to the top, Friedman’s story rings true.)
During the late 1980s, as a junior stage manager, she began putting on benefit gigs for Aids charities. She was booking acts, finding theatres, asking favours, commissioning posters and arranging publicity for shows. In other words, executive producing. The Ambassador Theatre Group spotted her talent and invited her to put together a short season of plays in one of its smaller houses in the West End. Heaven-sent opportunities like this occur very rarely in the lives of impresarios and she made the most of it. ‘It was a tight ticket. If it wasn’t a success you weren’t going to lose a lot of money, and if it was, it would make a little bit.’ A lot of her work transferred to larger venues. Her next step was to strike out independently and to raise funds for her own productions. Here she hit on a ruse that has a touch of inspired cunning about it. She looked at theatre programmes, found the names of existing sponsors, and sent them proposals for shows she wanted to produce. The wheeze worked. But she still had to overcome her youthful idealism and to discover what makes the moneymen tick. Potential backers for an early production were told, ‘This is a really important piece of work.’ They were unimpressed. ‘Important?’ they told her. ‘We don’t care about important. When do we recoup?’
Friedman is buoyant about the state of the West End. ‘We took a bit of a kicking over the summer thanks to the Olympics and the Jubilee. But the autumn’s been really strong. It came bouncing back really quickly.’ She now faces the growing presence of the subsidised sector in the West End. It’s a development she views with some disquiet. ‘They’re being encouraged to operate commercially as much as they can. So, as of next February, the National will have three West End shows on. Plus the RSC has Matilda. And I’m completely in support of this. Let me be clear. I think it’s great. However, they’re transferring work that’s already had the benefit of government subsidy. They can transfer it at a cheaper rate. They can offer cheaper tickets. And they can apply their own sponsorship and not-for-profit policies to their ticket pricing in the West End.’ This puts her, and other commercial producers, at ‘an unfair disadvantage,’ she says. A simple innovation would correct the imbalance. ‘I’d like a pot of money from Arts Council sources applied to cheap tickets,’ she says. ‘And when I say cheap, I mean, ten, fifteen quid tickets, not stuck up in the balcony. The best seats in the house. That way our work could be as accessible as the Travelex season at the National. And you’d pay it back immediately. So the Arts Council would effectively behave like a private investor.’
In theory, a great scheme. In practice it might violate the moral integrity of the Arts Council and its high-minded staff. People who work for cultural quangos tend to be ultra-cautious souls with hardline communitarian principles. And the prospect of ‘behaving like a private investor’ would cause most of them to faint in outrage. Friedman is aware of this but adds, in a persuasive aside, that she pours millions into the Exchequer in the form of VAT receipts. The total stands at £3.3 million per year. ‘And that’s just this company. That’s just me,’ she adds. At the same time she realises that her plan to use tax-paying funds to subsidise West End impresarios may prove unpopular in the age of cuts. ‘This is not for now,’ she says. ‘It’s for a rosier day.’
Old Times is previewing at the Harold Pinter theatre and opens on 31 January.