Sam Mendes once said there is no such thing as the history of British theatre, only the history of British press nights. That observation takes us closer to understanding the taboo that constrains journalists from reviewing the opening performance of a West End play. A dozen or so previews take place before the critics are invited in for a star-studded gala, or ‘press night’, which is fixed by the producer to make the show appear in its most seductive light. Newspapers are usually wary of censorship in any form, so their assent to this convention must be considered a great anomaly.
The vanity of the lead actor is a significant element. A first night is usually full of hazards and mishaps as the cast acquaint themselves with the props, costumes, door-handles and so on. Major stars are sensitive to public ridicule and they would not relish being mocked for upsetting a milk jug or bashing into a cocktail cabinet or plunging a dagger into the wrong duke or accidentally head-butting Helen Mirren.
But the reputation of actors is merely an excuse for the embargo. The issue here is the power of the press. And the desire to control the press. Theatre people dislike and misunderstand the press and yet they covet the influence that newspapers appear to wield. An impresario looks at a critic just as you or I might look at a small child holding a loaded Uzi made of solid gold. If you handle the negotiation successfully you can walk away with a lot of loot. But if you blunder you’ll end up with your brains all over the wall.
The power of the press extends to two areas. First, to the box office. Second, to the posthumous reputation of the play. Drama critics have a unique relationship with the art they scrutinise because their opinions outlive the work itself. Every play is born on death row. Today’s Shaftesbury Avenue hit will close sooner or later (probably sooner), and nothing will remain but the recollections of those who saw it. The largest and most authoritative archive of such memories is the newspapers. This odd state of affairs doesn’t apply to films, TV shows, books and recorded music because those genres are ineradicable. A bad review can be dismissed as an irrelevant pinprick. And the work itself will survive to be judged afresh by future audiences and readers.
Theatre people are also aware that drama critics work under extreme pressure. A play takes many thousands of man-hours to produce and yet it’s assessed by a reviewer who has to bash out a few hasty paragraphs of copy to meet a midnight deadline. And this opinion becomes the show’s memorial. The critic is effectively the production’s biographer, shrine-builder and flame-keeper. And if he dislikes the show his verdict will besmirch the temple of the production as it passes into history. That explains why drama critics are detested far more keenly than reviewers of books, records, TV shows and films.
It’s understandable that producers, faced with the perilous influence of the critics, feel an overwhelming urge to limit their activities. But they can’t. Instead they set up a fortnight of previews as a ritualised buffer zone. Yet this violates the principles of both the marketplace and the press. Once preview tickets are on sale the customer has a right to information about the goods being offered. And no newspaper should allow itself to be gagged by a commercial interest. Reform is needed. The disingenuous custom of the ‘press night’ should be scrapped. Let critics report what happened on the opening night. And if previews are necessary then keep the critics out but let the public in for free.
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