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The protocol of reviewing previews… UPDATED

While opera productions invariably open to the press on their first public performances - but usually discreetly hold an invited dress rehearsal beforehand in front of a non-paying audience - a tradition has long built up in the theatre that productions will benefit from being “run in” before the press actually sees them.

This gives the creative team time to work with their production, once they see how it lands (or doesn’t) in front of a live audience. Many writers, directors and actors don’t see the process as complete until that happens, and it’s usually a key part of the way productions are structured. But a production should, at least, be ready for a paying audience by the first public performance (though it wasn’t, apparently, for the first preview of Mother Courage at the National, which didn’t even manage to get the end, as I reported here last week).

Opera could benefit from the same sort of thing, no doubt, but since the runs are invariably very short, there isn’t the time to afford them that luxury, and they work within the constraints they have: they need to get the press in front of the show as soon as possible, so that it starts being written about straight away. But at least they know it upfront: there’s no room for negotiation or manoeuvre, so everyone works towards the same goal of being as ready as possible on the night. Sure, opera critics might get a better, more rounded experience if they waited till later in the run, but it’s simply not the way it works.

The same thing happened with last week’s opening of Ben Hur Live: with only five performances in total, they couldn’t afford to hold the press back, in any sense, so we had to see the very first one. (It’s amazing how smoothly it went, in the circumstances, even if there was a notable absence of most of the promised live birds).

But the theatre is much more fluid and flexible. On Broadway, a tradition has now evolved in which new shows, particularly musicals, preview for weeks on end. Memphis, for instance, starts previews at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre tomorrow, September 23, and doesn’t open till October 19; and that’s with a show that has even had the benefit of two out-of-town try-outs beforehand at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse last year, and at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre in January, so I can’t imagine that there are major structural changes ahead.

But given that the show is not being programmed on a limited run, but what is hoped will be an open-ended one, they can afford to take what time they want to, to make sure they get it absolutely right (or at least as right as they can make it) before exposing it to critical attention, which is what will happen in the days leading up to the official opening. (As I’ve explained often here before, in New York critics are invited to a series of designated press previews, ahead of that date).

Both of those philosophies - the lengthy previews, and the press performances ahead of a “gala opening” - are being imported here to the West End for the London premiere of Legally Blonde - the Musical. As I previously wrote here, “There will be five press performances on January 7, 8, 9 and 12, with reviews embargoed to January 14 - the day after the gala night on January 13.” By the time of the first press performance, the show will have been previewing for over a month - the first preview is on December 5 - so they’ll have had more than enough time to run it in. (And since the creative team is being entirely imported from the US, they are used to this way of working, too).

But elsewhere, matters seem to be already getting blurred and confused. We’re in the midst of the busiest fortnight for new openings I can ever remember, and it’s causing a serious logjam on press nights, so much so that, as I reported here, that producers of The Shawkshank Redemption were forced to open their show on a Sunday matinee, the week before last. Sue Hyman, the show’s press agent, sent out an invitation declaring, “We know Sunday is a difficult time to review, but every other date had been booked”. But it was also clearly stated, “We can also arrange tickets for Friday 11 September at 7.30pm and performances at 3pm and 7.30pm on Saturday 12 September for reviews to hold for Mon 14 September.”

It was hardly done without plenty of notice: the invitation arrived on August 19. But someone, clearly, forgot to inform key members of the creative team. Yesterday I received an e-mail from Owen O’Neill, co-author of the script with Dave Johns that complained: “I have been told that Michael Billington, Charles Spencer, Paul Callan and Bill Hagerty did not come to the official press night but went to the previews; as far as I can ascertain not one of them mentioned this in their reviews. Previews are a period in which the writer, director and actors are still in the midst of a work in progress and this is reflected in the discounted ticket prices. I was rewriting dialogue and the director was changing the blocking right up until the eve of press night. In my experience, during the previews, most actors still have their ‘rehearsal head’ on; this was certainly the case with our cast. I am not writing to whinge about any poor notices we may have received on press night or beyond that; however, if critics are unable to attend on press night and go to a preview then I think it is only fair that they should mention this.”

When I replied, telling Mr O’Neill that those final previews had in fact been specifically designated as press performances (and therefore there was no need for my colleagues to draw attention to the fact that they had seen a preview), he in turn graciously replied, “I was not made aware that you guys were specifically invited to the previews. That seems a very odd thing for the publicity people to do. So please accept my apologies.”

There seems to have been a communications failure somewhere; but it also highlights the danger of breaking with the protocol of a single, clearly-designated first night: when the West End transfer of Calendar Girls arrived at the Noel Coward Theatre, some critics had also been allowed into earlier previews, but then when the gala night arrived, no one had told the remaining critics who chose to go then that the performance was at an earlier start time of 7pm, either, so the producer ended up having to hold the curtain for their arrival.

As Michael Coveney blogged at the time here: “Confusion bordering on the chaotic reigned over the London opening of Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls at the Noel Coward. Last night, everyone had turned up for the 7pm start except the Press officer, Peter Thompson, and a few stray critics, who all thought the show began at 7.30pm.The tickets were clearly marked 7pm, and the date and time had been registered with the Society of London Theatre months ago. So why the mix-up?… The fact is, Pugh has tried to exclude the critics from a show he rightly believes doesn’t depend on them. He had to be vigorously persuaded by the host theatre to allow the Press in to review the premiere at Chichester last September. And this time, he and Tommo have picked off the critics by allowing them the option of creeping into previews over the past week and scattering their notices to the winds of chance and indifference.”

Aware of the difficulties that we’re currently facing in the scheduling department, press offices are falling over themselves to be accommodating at the moment: last night, for instance, I went to Hampstead Theatre to see the final preview of The Fastest Clock in the Universe, and its charming press representative Becky Sayer had even set up a press desk to greet us at, since there were so many of us in early. Given the clashes that are occurring this week, it’s the only way some of us could see it. But I hope that the creative team were at least consulted and informed before we were let in!


Sue Hyman, the press representative for The Shawshank Redemption, has now written to me and clarified the following, which I am happy to place on the record.

“I am concerned by the mention of this production and confusion of when the press were invited to review as reported in the Stage blog.

There has long been an understanding between SOLT and the Critics Circle that critics can attend previews if they are unable to be present at an invited press performance.

When there have been so many press performances in the September review calendar, some critics chose to attend different performances.

This was announced by the producers to the whole Shawshank company (prior to the performance) on 11 September.

I am astounded that Owen O’Neill has written a complaint about this especially as he was quite happy about the review situation last weekend!

Best wishes Sue Hyman

1 Comments

You can tell Sue Hyman works in PR.

She says:
"There [is] an understanding between SOLT and the Critics Circle that critics can attend previews if they are unable to be present at an invited press performance... I am astounded that Owen O’Neill has written a complaint about this..."

Is that what he said? The email reads:

"If critics are unable to attend on press night and go to a preview then I think it is only fair that they should mention the fact"

It seems he's not complaining about critics attending previews per se, but asking that should they do so, they acknowledge that what they're seeing isn't fully finished.

A subtle but important different.

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