As this blog is part of an industry-orientated media company, which reports, supports and assists the theatre business, I make no apologies for occasionally using it to cover matters that relate to what happens inside it that are usually hidden from public view.
The public, for instance, don’t and won’t really care about how exactly critics go about their business; yet there are, of course, finely tuned mechanisms for how managements and the press interact. We (the theatre press) don’t exist without the work they put on; yet they need and want us, too, presumably, to let the world know that their shows are happening at all.
Of course, the dark arts of marketing, and the more transparent workings of social media, mean that traditional media outlets are becoming less central, and you may occasionally detect a note of anxiety amongst those of us who write about the theatre for a living (and not just a hobby) that the writing’s on the (Facebook) wall for us instead of in print.
We have to adapt or die, and keep pace with the changes. It’s why, for example, I have embraced Twitter so keenly. But we also need to defend the territory, and watch out for the (sometimes not so) subtle ways that it is being re-defined.
Just last week I pointed out one way here, with a new attempt being made to control when reviews are actually published. This coming Thursday a new production of Hay Fever opens at the Noel Coward Theatre, but an embargo on of any reviews appearing has been placed until the completion of four invited press performances first.
Suddenly, what would have been the opening night is no longer one, but a “gala night” instead — but it has the trappings of a traditional opening, given its earlier starting time of 7pm (the traditional first night start time to enable overnight critics to get away sooner, and the post-performance party festivities to begin earlier); they are duly holding those festivities that night; and are no doubt inviting celebrity and other non-review press coverage of the occasion, too.
After my blog appeared, I wrote to the show’s producer Matthew Byam Shaw to voice my concerns at this apparent contradiction of holding a first night but requesting reviews not run, and he patiently replied explaining the timetabling pressures that had led to this decision with a clash at the Young Vic of another high-profile production on the same night (in fact, it was an even higher-profile one given that it stars Patrick Stewart, even if this is actually the third time he has starred in the same play).
“We had to go with the Monday embargo to ensure the best possible coverage for the play, otherwise reviews would clash with Bingo and trickle out over several days if we also opened on the Thursday”, he stated.
The aim to “ensure the best possible coverage for the play” is entirely understandable, but it also suggests a new rule of engagement to control when and how the reviews are distributed, which is not ultimately in the gift of a producer. The danger is that critics will end up at the beck and call of producers who wish to arbitrarily change the rules all the time, to suit their own timetabling and publicity convenience.
Mind you, here’s a producer who, through the offices of their appointed press agent, is at least still trying to invite the press to their show at all, and not deliberately keep us out. Zach Braff’s All New People, by comparison, begins performances in the West End tomorrow night, and utter confusion seems to be reigning as to if and when they are even holding press performances. Two dates are listed in the SOLT diary for this coming Friday and Tuesday week, yet no invitations have been issued yet.
This is not the first time I’ve written about a publicity failure on this production — back in December, I wrote here of having to chase down a press release for the show, even though there was one (without a media contact) already posted on the production website. As I said then, “Of course, a play with Zach Braff may have its own PR value built in - but it seems peculiar to make journalists chase down your press release, instead of making sure that they received it en masse.”
Now the same production is making critics chase down invitations to see the show, and when my Stage colleague Jeremy Austin did so last week, he was shunted from pillar to post (and performance to performance) by a separate PR agency who handle the show’s online media, before they realised that The Stage exists on multiple platforms and he therefore had to go to what they called the “offline agency” to fulfil his request.
As he said to the online agency in increasing exasperation as they moved his tickets yet again, “Reviewers aren’t just there at the beck and call of PR firms. There are other press nights we have to go to etc.”
I meanwhile e-mailed the (offline) agency last Monday with my ticket request, given that I knew already (even without an invitation) that I couldn’t make either of the two dates booked in the SOLT diary. They replied saying they would come back to me. When they hadn’t done so by Friday, I wrote to them again — copying in the joint chief executives of the producing company behind it. Funny how it spurred the PR company into action. But it shouldn’t have been necessary to do so to get them to do a job which is hardly rocket science.
And sometimes it appears that critics are being kept out of a show for no good reason at all. There’s no comedian on earth more tried and tested than Jackie Mason; he’s been going strong for some fifty years now. He returned to the West End last week for a five-week run of what is being billed as his “farewell show” — but critics are not being invited in until the beginning of the third week of it.
So, exasperated by the prospect that, as he says, “the official ‘opening’ night isn’t for another fortnight”, the Daily Telegraph’s comic critic Dominic Cavendish went in to review the very first night of Jackie Mason’s return to the West End instead, and his review ran last Thursday.
As he wrote, those long previews “seems wrong — firstly because the theatre is charging £55 for stalls seats, never mind the ‘preview’ period, and secondly because the guy has been making people laugh for 50 years - if he’s not ready now, when will he be?”
In fact, it sounds like he wasn’t actually ready: “As it turns out, the very first night is a bit of a shambles but a rather charming one - with Mason shuffling over to the wings to confer with an unseen assistant as to what gags are up next. When he repeats himself, loses his thread, confesses to never having been so nervous, it’s oddly touching - he gets more sympathetic ‘oohs’ than a pantomime Cinderella. When he hits the spot, though, he shows he has still got it. There’s nothing pitying about the standing ovation at the end. I imagine the show will not only get tauter but more topical as the run continues.”
So we variously have producers trying to stop reviews appearing, even after they’ve opened the show, until they decide when they want them to; or press agents not bothering to invite the press in a timely way, and mucking them around when they make requests; or inviting critics a long way into a short run. No wonder critics are starting to take the law into their own hands.