It used to be clear: the West End ‘opening night’ was the night that the critics attended, so did the celebrities and investors, and the reviews duly appeared the next morning (hence the unseemly scurry of departing critics as the lights faded). Those were the days of real opening nights and real overnight reviews.
Nowadays, though, it’s got a lot more complicated — partly in the guise of making it easier for critics, and to control exactly when the reviews appeared. Critics are now often invited to a range of critics previews ahead of the official opening, as they are in New York, on the understanding that reviews are embargoed from appearing before the official opening itself. The opening itself somehow became re-branded the ‘gala’ night — the one at which the celebrities and investors could air-kiss (and kiss their investment goodbye in some cases).
Earlier this year, though, we had the slightly ludicrous instruction on Hay Fever that the reviews continue to be embargoed until three days after the Gala night; so effectively, the producers were calling for an opening without the prospect of reviews appearing in the immediate wake of their gala night, as I wrote about at the time here. The official stated reason was that this was so as not to clash with the reviews of the Young Vic’s transfer of Bingo from Chichester, which chose the self-same night to open (even though it had been reviewed in West Sussex the year before).
Now, however, hiding behind galas have been pushed to its logical conclusion: the producers for Chariots of Fire held one earlier this week on Wednesday to mark the transfer of the show from Hampstead, but without holding critics previews beforehand. We simply weren’t invited at all.
My suspicion is that there was little to be gained from doing so: those of us who liked it at Hampstead might well have drawn unfavourable comparisons on the transfer, while those who didn’t would not necessarily have been persuaded to like it more. It’s still striking to have an opening without any reviews, but one or two have started appearing from online outlets that attended the gala night; and I was particularly interested by the full disclosure to the one on the Londonist website, which states: “JohnnyFox received complimentary ticket, programme and an undisclosed amount of free champagne from Premier PR.” And yet I was specifically told by them that it wasn’t a press night.
The Spice Girls put on a rare show of unity at the recent press launch for Viva Forever, or at least appeared on the same stage without injury or insult; but a recent feature in the Daily Mail suggests that behind-the-scenes it took a lot to get them there. But even more interesting, of course, is the fact that it was The Stage that brought them together in the first place: “The band were originally put together following a 1994 advertisement in The Stage newspaper. ‘R U 18-23 with the ability to sing/dance? R U streetwise, ambitious, outgoing and determined?’ it asked.”
And now, despite the apparent behind-the-scenes animosities that the Mail itemises between them, there’s a good reason for them to get behind Viva Forever, says the Mail: “As one source on the show says: ‘All they have to do is sit back and count the money.’ Musicals of this sort are huge commercial juggernauts. We Will Rock You, the musical based on the hits of Queen and written by Ben Elton has grossed more than £150 million. Mamma Mia! has a worldwide gross of £1.2 billion. As Simon Fuller will have told them, they can hope to make far more than the £10 million each they netted from the comeback tour by lending their songs to the show. It is estimated they could make £3 million a year each for years to come if the show is a hit. Not bad for a pre-fabricated group, brought together via an advertisement in The Stage newspaper.”
We may be in an age of austerity, with taxes up (except, of course, for the very rich, who get tax reductions when they bother to pay them at all) and public spending down, including a brutal swathe of arts cuts. Yet the arts contribute massive amounts to the exchequer, not least the fact that its box office earnings are subject to 20% VAT that goes straight back to the treasury.
So it was interesting to read this week that in the midst of France’s Socialist Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault appeal for a national effort to deal with his country’s “crushing” public debt, he promised to “increase the annual wealth tax (which is imposed in addition to income tax), remove the tax shield that caps individuals’ taxation, abolish tax-free overtime, and increase taxes on companies, especially banks and oil firms”. But in the same breath, he is also set to “reduce VAT on books and theatre tickets.”
What an amazing statement of intent. Make the rich pay — they can afford it — but help culture. We could learn something from the French.
Never mind the worst pies in London, as Mrs Lovett freely admits to selling in Sweeney Todd; where are the worst theatre loos in London? I’m sure there are plenty of candidates, especially for women, but I’m particularly amazed by how a brand-new building like Shakespeare’s Globe has, as its primary provision, a gent’s loo that has a sum total of four urinals and two cubicles. Thank God, on press nights, that there’s a private reception room with a further two urinals and a cubicle, so at least the press aren’t caught short.
Quote of the week:
- from an interview with Jonathan Church, former stage electrician turned artistic director, in last weekend’s Independent on Sunday by Fiona Mountford: “I’m a theatre lover who comes from a practical background. I left school at 18, so perhaps my taste is closer to theatre-going audiences’ tastes than some people. I grew up watching proper regional theatres engaging with their audiences. So maybe I was well-positioned to remember what it was that made them work…. Theatre for me is a combination of the highest aesthetic and academic values and ‘How the hell do you get this show on by Friday?’”