[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/83188?ns=guardian&pageName=Michael+Billington+on+first-night+pressure%3AArticle%3A1310238&ch=Culture&c3=Guardian&c4=Theatre%2CStage%2CCulture+section&c6=Michael+Billington&c7=09-Nov-25&c8=1310238&c9=Article&c10=Feature&c11=Culture&c13=Critic%27s+notebook&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FCulture%2FTheatre[/img]'First nights are often worst nights'
Are first nights a bad thing for actors and critics alike? It's an old issue, but it surfaced again last week. I was chairing a pre-show chat in Stratford with Richard McCabe, who is playing Sir Toby Belch in the RSC's Twelfth Night. It was a jolly do, although Richard, who was candid and charming, was passionate about the horrors of opening nights. He said Twelfth Night had gone like a dream at previews and all subsequent performances. Only on press night, in front of what he termed a "stuffed shirt" audience, did the show fail to take off. In his whole career, he could only recall two first nights where a show had been at its best.
It's an argument I've often heard from actors. My knee-jerk response has always been to say that, whatever the backstage butterflies, there's a buzz about a first night you don't find later on. But I'm beginning to think Richard is right: first nights are often worst nights for all concerned. Big West End openings are now a nightmare. Shows start hopelessly late as the paps jostle to snatch pictures of B-list celebs, the intervals go on for ever, and critics start to fret about deadlines. Even off-West End first nights are highly artificial affairs: when I saw Cock at the Theatre Upstairs last week, I calculated almost everyone present was either a critic or part of the theatrical profession.
What can be done? The simplest answer would be to adopt the New York system, whereby critics attend a choice of previews with reviews embargoed until after the "official" first night, attended by celebs and star-gazers. People say it could never happen here. In such a competitive newspaper industry, someone would always break the embargo; and, given the plethora of openings, scheduling would become a logistical nightmare. But with a bit of common sense, both objections can be overcome. Take Legally Blonde The Musical: it's breaking the mould by inviting critics to a choice of five previews in January.
This seems to me the way we should go. Destroy the one-off press night and you diminish the tension for the actors, at the same time as giving critics the chance to collect their thoughts. Who could argue with that?
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Guardian: Michael Billington on first-night pressure
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