There’s something absolutely tangible and unmistakeable about a show that, on its first night, plays with such blissful confidence on one side of the footlights, and is met by purring pleasure (and utterly helpless laughter) on the other, that you just know it is going to be a hit.
Such was the case at the National on Tuesday with the opening of One Man, Two Guvnors, the play that has brought James Corden back to the National where almost exactly 7 years ago he was first noticed as part of the remarkable original troupe of The History Boys, also directed by Nick Hytner. That opening, on the other hand, was altogether more tentative; when the press arrived at the National, we were told that there would be a delay to the performance.
There had been a fire alarm in the Lyttelton, and the sprinklers went off dousing the stage. Before the performance eventually began, around 40 minutes late as I recall, Nick Hytner took to the stage to remark that before we were finally let into the theatre it was all hands to decks, literally, to mop up the stage before the performance, and warn us that the lighting might not work as it should.
It didn’t, however, hurt the play’s long-term prospects, which became a long-running hit first on the South Bank, then on Broadway, then back in the West End. Ditto, too, for the first night of Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage in the West End, which was hit by a power outage that knocked out the lighting entirely except for emergency lights; when power still didn’t return after 20 minutes or so, theatre owner Cameron Mackintosh took to the stage to explain that, no, it wasn’t because he hadn’t fed the metre, but there was a general outage throughout the area, so the performance would be completed by working lights (a few minutes later, someone managed to rig a follow-spot to the emergency grid so at least it shone some more light on the proceedings, in every sense).
Crises are part of the joys of live performance, of course, but the creative teams for those shows must have been pulling (what’s left of) their hair out; first nights are tense enough without adding to it, and you want to show your show off to its best advantage, not when your set has just been treated to an unexpected shower or the lighting isn’t working.
God of Carnage also survived that disastrous opening — in fact, it may have been helped by it a little, since critics were hardly going to put the boot in after such adversity, and it, too, has had an afterlife that included Broadway, though it never matched the success of the same author’s Art: whereas the original cast of God of Carnage was never replaced, Art went to around 150 cast changes in the West End and even a change of theatre. (OK, a slight exaggeration on the casting front, but it seemed like that).
Art, too, is a show that had the unmistakeable aura of a hit from the off; it was a play that got people talking when they left the theatre, and laughing a lot inside it. But if you can taste a hit, you can also smell a flop a mile off sometimes. You don’t want it to be so, of course, but after Behind the Iron Mask became one of the West End’s most notorious short-lived disasters, there was a gruesome inevitability that the same writer’s next show Too Close to the Sun would get burnt.
On Broadway, of course, the divisions between the roar of a hit and the smell of a flop are even more pronounced than in the West End. You knew long before it opened that Frank Wildhorn’s latest opus Wonderland, for instance, was hurtling towards disaster (despite an earlier production in Florida, they seemed to have arrived on Broadway with a script that was still being doctored during previews, and desperate attempts were made to re-stage parts of it); whereas The Book of Mormon, which opened entirely cold on Broadway, got an unstoppable buzz from the moment it began performances.
But the joy of theatre is that you can’t always tell: before it opened, The Motherfucker with the Hat was dying at the Broadway box office, despite a headliner star in Chris Rock; audiences were being put off by the title, if they heard it at all (it was unprintable in the ads and advance features in the papers), and there were reports that unless the reviews were favourable, the producers would close it immediately. But the reviews endorsed the show, and its fate was turned around.