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The first night rat race and restoration failures

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I’ve done three first nights on the trot this week, and in the middle of them, I ran into that show’s producer in the (over)crowded bar before the show, who said to me, “I don’t know how you can do this every night. It’s unbearable!”

Of course, for him the stakes were a lot higher than for me; I was just there to do a job. But even without adding his own extra tensions to it, it’s true that they are pressurised occasions. The theatres are packed and to be frank, the old Victorian and Edwardian era buildings don’t have big enough public spaces to accommodate the collective throng milling about in the tiny foyers or sometimes even more minute bars.

The press are sometimes helped by having a bar designated for their private use; at the Garrick on Monday, not only did this have free drinks on offer, but also sandwiches for those of us who’d not managed to eat first. (Step forward, hero of the hour, Bill Kenwright for such thoughtfulness). And at Old Vic first nights, a whole area in front of the box office counter gets roped off, where we’re also offered free interval ice creams and packets of crisps!

Of course we’re not there to review the food and drink arrangements, and it is sometimes uncomfortable to be given such generous hospitality when we may end up being less than generous in our subsequent reviews. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, they always say, and there may be no such thing as a free drink, either – are we being seduced into being more favourable than we would be otherwise?

I’d like to think not, and that it’s purely for our mutual convenience. When we’ve got quite enough to think about already, producers don’t want us to be thinking about dealing with bar service as well.   And it also usefully confines the press to a particular area so we don’t mingle with the rest of the first night throng. Out of sight to most, we can also be out of mind.

But those are amongst the perks of our job. And I never take them for granted. But I’m also sometimes shocked by other things. We’re typically given seats in great locations – producers want us, after all, to see shows from the best possible viewpoints. That even means at some theatres where there is no centre aisle, they sometimes actually put one in for opening nights. (This happened at the Garrick for Twelve Angry Men on Monday.)

But sometimes they put us on side aisles instead. I remember at the last Wyndham’s opening duly finding my view of everything happening on stage left entirely obscured. Not great – but at least I wasn’t paying for my seat. Others do actually pay to sit here.

Again last night at the Pinter Theatre, I was fine on the side aisle of Row K of the stalls – but my companion on the seat beside me reported that great chunks of the action were rendered entirely invisible if the actors on stage were seated. The rows are offset against each other – but the rake is so insufficient that if you are facing a boulder of a head in front of you there’s no way to see part of the stage. My guest was there for free, of course, but others may have to buy a presumably top-price ticket to sit here.

And yet again, I also constantly monitor the front of house areas at theatres I visit – and am always shocked by the shoddy state of disrepair at many of them. The beautiful front facade of the Pinter Theatre is literally cracked in several places, and in dire need of more than just a paint job. Plaster was visibly peeling from the ceiling outside the rear stalls gents loo at the Duke of York’s when I previously visited it a few months ago (and tweeted a picture of it at the time); when I checked it out again when I was there on Tuesday, it was still peeling – but had now been only covered over by a hasty paint job.

Again, my ticket is at least free – but paying customers have a compulsory restoration fee added to their ticket price. If the paint job outside the Duke of York’s toilets constitutes restoration, it is money being ill-spent.

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