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The Green Room: Must the show always go on?

A scene from The Play That Goes Wrong at the Duchess Theatre. But is it always possible to keep going in the face of adversity? Photo: Tristram Kenton

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…​​​​


Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA award winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

Beryl Phoenix is in her 40s. She has played leading roles at the RSC, worked on numerous new plays, and toured both national and internationally

Adam Lovett, 45, has appeared in Oscar-winning films, on TV and in theatre at the RSC, National Theatre, and the West End

John Pepper is 31, and for the past 10 years has worked extensively as an actor in various regional theatres, the National Theatre and in radio, television and feature film

Keith Simpson is in his early 20s and since graduating from drama school in 2016 has worked on national tours and in rep

Peter Quince, 72, works in theatre and television

Vivian Lee is 38 and has played leading roles at the National, the RSC and the Royal Court, alongside regular TV appearances


Adam Clearly, no. I don’t know how some archaic saying has got some kind of status of holy writ. We’ll try to make the show go on, unless it’s unsafe, puts anyone in danger, or has so many understudies on in the one performance that it reduces the quality of the product.

Peter At the risk of generalising, I think there’s a slight generational difference here. Perhaps older actors are more inclined to think the show must go on.

Jon It certainly feels as if, for example, first previews get cancelled more than they used to when I started twenty-odd years ago, but maybe that’s just me being fogeyish.

Adam I like the old-school romanticism of the saying, but come on. There are worse things than an audience rescheduling their night for a cancelled show. We’re not firefighters or hospitals. It’s not an essential public service that needs to be maintained no matter what.

Beryl I think if it can go on, then it should. But at the end of the day, it’s a play. If someone is too unwell or if things feel unready and therefore potentially dangerous, then no.

Albert Exactly – it’s just a play. I was in rehearsals while watching 9/11 happen. The young director tried to grab us away from the TV to make us go back to rehearsals. We told him to fuck off. This was history. That was just a play.

John I quite like the myth that if the audience is smaller than the cast, then the show is cancelled.

Jon I’m so glad to hear it described as a myth. I would say the majority of the profession still believes it to be true.

John Ha. I certainly want it to be true.

Beryl Wow John, you must be in a right stinker.

John It’s a two-hander – total nightmare.

Albert It never does any harm to maintain a healthy disrespect for one’s job.

Beryl I was once asked to do a show with tonsillitis, high fever, almost hallucinating and vomiting, but the company revolted and said no. It wouldn’t have been safe for any of us.

Jon We’re certainly expected to be the hero and go on when we’re ill. I’ve gone on stage and done performances in a state that would have absolutely led me to call in sick for an office job – and in some cases, I had a cover ready and waiting to go on. It was always seen as a brave thing for me to do but it could have equally been seen as an irresponsible and unnecessarily risky move.

Actors will always do it if they can. Whether they always should is a different matter

Beryl Actors will always do it if they can. Whether they always should is a different matter.

Vivian I think the word ‘humanise’ is useful here. The unique selling point of theatre is that it is live. When someone forgets a line, or corpses, or whatever, it creates ripples of excitement. It also reminds people that we are alive and only human up there. I think there is a danger of taking that away from us.

Jon That’s a great point – that sometimes the vulnerability of the actor can make the whole experience more theatrical.

Vivian Yes, but equally if someone is ill, or it is dangerous, or whatever, then the show should stop and the audience get another kind of reminder that there are human beings up there.

Peter An actor I know mainly works in musical theatre where there are always understudies. She thinks all plays should have them too, but that’s not always feasible for small regional theatres.

Beryl Lots of companies couldn’t afford it.

Jon I was once in a show where the performance was wrongly scheduled and we were asked to go on at the time it was advertised rather than the time it should have been. We said no because the notice was too short.

Keith I agree with Beryl. If it’s not safe or it greatly inconveniences the people involved in the production in ways they are not contractually obliged to accommodate, then it shouldn’t.

Beryl Common sense should prevail.

Peter I know of shows where the producer has offered to cancel and the performer has insisted on going on.

John I had a preview cancelled because of a tech running over and huge parts of the show being unsafe. That was a good call.

Jon John, if it’s the show I’m thinking of, it wasn’t entirely safe once it opened either.

John Very true.

Beryl Hmm, too often the case.

Jon Often nobody wants to be the person responsible for sending what could be a thousand people – and 50 grand – home.

Peter I’ve heard of one show that has a contract where you lose a part of your bonus every time you’re off.

Jon So we’ve got safety, scheduling, illness, lack of cover – anything that shouldn’t be used as a reason to cancel?

John I once had a call from my company manager telling me we had had the half. I was still in my hotel room. I don’t think that would have been a valid reason.

Jon And one thing we haven’t touched on: who should have the final say on whether the show does go on or not? Management, stage management, the company…?

Vivian Stage management.

Peter The management, surely?

Beryl The company manager, I think. They know the company and would be more connected to them than a producer.

Adam We act as if we’re special with ‘the show must always go on’. Doesn’t every sector always try to make things happen unless there’s a reason not to?