London's Theatreland has always been a staging ground for artistic split personalities.
On the one side you have a parade of crowd-pleasing musicals where big budgets equal big ticket prices but also a guarantee of high production values and stage spectacle (unless you're one of the unlucky ones who went to see the Spice Girls musical obviously).
And just because they're popular doesn't mean that a musical can't have some bite - witness Billy Elliott's sing-along anti-Thatcherite message or the subversive outsider narrative of Elphaba's victory in Wicked.
Meanwhile politically-charged productions are often seen as the purview of the theatrical fringes with experimental productions happening upstairs in pub theatres or strictly limited runs in second stage spaces where the limited seating capacities means some nights the cast can outnumber the people in the audience.
Somewhere in the middle sits a vast audience for commercial theatre, but we're a fickle and changeable lot, and producing a play that can both inform and entertain us as well as persuade us to stump up the cash equivalent of multiple TV season box sets on Amazon for a single night at the theatre is challenging to say the least.
Speaking on the close of The Hothouse, the second of four plays in the Trafalgar Transformed season, Simon Russell Beale identified the problem as one of discoverability and risk-taking: "There's a huge appetite for straight plays in the West End, but it's hard to gauge interest in advance."
In other words, the audience might be there, but there's financial risk on both sides. Producers need guarantees of advance sales to justify those pricey screen actor salaries that help tempt audiences, and theatre-goers are reluctant to 'take a punt' on the unknown and risk a merely average night out when they could stay in and watch Gillian Anderson in The Fall or Elizabeth Moss and Peter Mullan in Top of the Lake.
This is why I think the current Trafalgar Transformed season at the Ambassador's Theatre Group's Trafalgar Studios is so slyly experimental and worthy of attention. It's not just the quality of the productions or the instantly recognisable casting but the trick of bringing everything together into one deceptively simple season.
At first glance the season appears very traditional. Star casting featuring people like James McAvoy and John Simm alongside Simon Russell Beale, Clive Rowe and rising stars such as Hayley Atwell performing in plays by the likes of Pinter and Shakespeare doesn't sound so very experimental, but what marks the season out is a sense of urgency and participation, what director Jamie Lloyd refers to as its 'dynamic and forward-moving' nature.
The simplest move of all is perhaps also the bravest: This is a season that doesn't announce all of its productions in advance in one go, preferring to launch them individually in special handover events between casts.
This has the advantage of helping individual productions stand out while also keeping the season as a whole fresh, but my favourite part of this approach is that it means the best tickets can't sell out months in advance. A risk for advance forecasting perhaps, but also a real boon that encourages discovery, spontaneous ticket booking and generates lots of anticipatory buzz - the what will they do next factor if you will.
At the same time that each production gets its moment in the spotlight, it also benefits from being promoted under the Trafalgar Transformed season's umbrella, something that both protects and enhances each individual show and provides a welcome continuity between what would otherwise be very disparate productions.
Experiencing the season in this way reminds me of browsing the recommended and cult classics tables in a bookstore - radically different works across a rich variety of genres but all linked by an overriding sense of associated quality and a certain 'must read' status. In the same way the Trafalgar Transformed season mixes fresh interpretations of classics like Macbeth with more contemporary works like The Pride, which opens on Thursday 8th August.
The Pride is the latest announcement in the season, and indeed was originally staged by Jamie Lloyd back in 2008 upstairs at the Royal Court to an audience of "approximately 85 people" according to its writer Alexi Kaye Campbell.
Paralleling two love stories across different time periods, the play is set in a very different political context to when it was first performed, taking place in a Britain where a Tory PM has campaigned for same-sex marriage as part of a broader "turning point of global awareness on gay issues" according to Campbell, but at the same time "homophobia in other parts of the world is possibly getting worse because of the changes that are happening in the West."
Speaking at the press launch for The Pride, director Jamie Lloyd announced he was "very excited that a bigger, more diverse London audience will now get the chance to see the play" and added that the production would accompanied by "an eclectic mini-festival of extra events which will, this time, explore and analyse contemporary gay life and the history of gay theatre."
This central inclusive message could equally be applied to the season as a whole, and stands as a powerful example of the positive change that can be created simply by telling any social group that they are valued, be they gay, straight or a new theatre audience hoping to be made welcome.
The Trafalgar Transformed season shows that, if presented well, there is a big market for commercial theatre that still packs a powerful political and social edge, and that this along with commitment to inclusivity and reaching out to new audiences is something to be applauded.
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