The other week, I was reminded that you should never go to the theatre on a Monday. I went to see a West End comedy which featured an excellent cast being very funny for very little reward. The audience was dead, sluggish, and very much on the quiet side. But that’s what Monday audiences are like- it’s one of the rules.
Yer Monday audience probably booked their tickets by looking at the date rather than the day, only realising they’d booked for a Monday when they saw it staring back at them from Microsoft Outlook. Most of them spent Sunday thinking ‘Oh God, work tomorrow, and then I have to go to the bloody theatre in the evening’ when all they really wanted to do was ease into the working week with a ready meal in front of America’s Next Top Model. A Monday audience is the second hardest audience to make laugh.
The hardest, of course, is a Saturday night audience, for pretty much the opposite reason. Saturday night audiences are dangerous because they have high expectations. This is their weekend treat, and you’d bloody well better deliver on it. You’d think that would make them up for it (like their Friday counterparts, so pleased to have reached the end of the week that they’d laugh at the telephone directory) but no. For Saturday night punters the stakes are too high. They’ll only relax after the interval, once (and if) it’s been established that Someone Else Thinks It’s Good.
The point is, after you've been doing this job for a while, you begin to notice patterns emerging. And no night of the week can compare for weirdness to that changeling child of any run, the Press Night. Last night I came across Mark Shenton’s blog about the current West End run of Hay Fever, whose producers have taken the interesting step of embargoing any press reviews until after the first weekend, in essence giving themselves three press nights. As Shenton says, Thursday night’s performance had all the Press Night trappings- starting half an hour early, and so on. As an audience member, I can vouch for the fact that it felt like a press night, too. During the (beautifully played) first scene there was that strange, slightly manic laughter from the Stalls that speaks of too many well-meaning friends trying to warm the audience up. There were a couple of moments, too, where a laugh seemed to take the cast slightly by surprise, another PN hallmark.
You see, Press Nights are entirely sui generis. There is no other performance in any run which is similar. The first public performance is all about adrenalin, getting through it, easing into the sensation of being in front of an audience, focusing on the end of the show and that ‘we did it’ feeling. Further previews, if you’re lucky enough to have any, are about bedding down, getting comfortable. Then the Press Night comes along and any relaxation that might have crept into the show is subtly tempered with a very specific kind of tension. Things don’t flow quite the same way as they have done in rehearsals or previews. The shape, the feel, the timing are all a wee bit off- as if one is playing a piece one knows very well in an unfamiliar key. I’m not saying that Press Nights are bad- some of the ones I’ve been in have been excellent- I’m saying that they’re always, by their very nature, different.
Which is why I’ve always thought it was a shame that it’s the Press Night that gives birth to the reviews. I wonder if critics assume that plays are always performed with an undercurrent of nervous tension, that no actors ever relax. How could they think otherwise, since they only ever see Press Nights? It drives me mad when a review refers to a performance being ‘uncertain’ or ‘tentative’ (my favourite example of the genre is- and this from a celebrated critic- ‘Michelle Collins, making her stage debut, seemed initially nervous’). Duh. Come back on a Wednesday matinee.
Because that’s the thing, of course. A review of a Press Night performance can never truly represent the show that audiences will see on any other night. Of course, a show has to be ready. If an audience is paying big money for tickets then they’re entitled to a certain level of expectation. But even a couple of days after Press Night, a show tends to be a very different beast- and yet the reviews remain in suspended animation, always reflecting what happened on one night and one night alone.
I’m sure most of the nation’s press will have been at Thursday’s performance of Hay Fever, and it’s that performance they’ll review (favourably, if they’ve any sense- it’s a delicious production). But how wonderful if the Thursday-Saturday idea being floated by Hay Fever’s producers were to catch on. The two rep seasons I’ve done never suffered from Press Night Syndrome, because you never knew when the papers were going to show up. It would be a boon for actors, reviewers and audiences alike if West End shows were afforded the same luxury.
And as for the show I’m doing at the moment- Toxic Bankers at Leicester Square Theatre, details here, well, we’ve managed to sidestep the issue entirely. Our Press Night and our first public performance are one and the same. Watch this space...
I should let you know that I’ve actually concealed a plug for the excellent show I’m currently working on somewhere in this blog post. If you managed to spot it, why not reward yourself by buying a ticket?