First night mishaps, but the show must go on!

Fiona Shaw (Galactia) and Jay Simpson in Scenes From An Execution. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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It's almost an immutable law of theatrical physics that if something can go wrong on a first night, it will -- the night where the stakes are highest for a production on view to critics and/or the major investors. It's enough to put the miss into mistakes, and in a notoriously superstitious profession, isn't a good omen for future success.

Mind you, it doesn't always work out that way: the first night of Cats at the New London Theatre was famously disrupted when a bomb scare caused the theatre to be evacuated – yet the show would go on have far more than a cat's proverbial nine lives, establishing a then-record 21 year run. As producer Cameron Mackintosh said when it finally closed,  "When it opened everyone thought it wouldn't run 21 days let alone as long as it has."

I remember, too, another more recent Lloyd Webber first night, when Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat returned to the West End's Adelphi Theatre in 2007, and the Ishmaelites failed to come riding by, so that Joseph’s brothers had no one to sell him into slavery to. But as Lee Mead, who was playing Joseph after winning the BBC TV reality casting show 'Any Dream Will Do', more sagely said, "That's theatre, that happens."

And last week it happened again on Broadway during the first night of a new production of Machinal at the American Airlines Theatre: the rotating set stopped revolving, and according to a report in the Wall Street Journal,

The show’s technical supervisor, the head of the scene shop and stage hands from other theaters rushed backstage. They stripped off their suit jackets and ties and tried to fix the malfunctioning scenery.

But it couldn't be fixed. So instead, British director Lyndsey Turner took to the stage to inform the audience,

After three weeks of previews the motor has betrayed us, and without that motor we feared we wouldn’t be able to deliver you this play as it’s been conceived by all of us.... We are going back to the oldest trick in the book…muscle, We have 11 volunteers who have agreed to push this bastard around. We are in uncharted waters.

As it happens, I'd seen the production just the night before at a critics' preview, and it had passed without a glitch. But sometimes these mishaps happen in front of us, too. In 2009, there was a first night of a production of Private Lives at Hampstead Theatre that was alarming in more ways than one: as I reported at the time,

About half an hour in, red lights started flashing above the entrance doors to the auditorium and an intermittent fire alarm started ringing, I initially wondered whether this was an avant-garde intervention of the director, who had already provided a discordant jazz underscoring to some of the action. Amanda may famously declare on that balcony, “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”, but it was more extraordinary how potent this persistent alarm was proving to be. The actors soldiered on, and Elyot’s later complaint, “That orchestra has a remarkably small repertoire”, seemed to be echoing the tone of the alarm as much as the band. But eventually the stage manager stepped into the stage to stop the performance. Jasper Britton tried to make light of the moment, stepping out of character to say, “It’s my fault - it’s the bad acting alarm”.

On the first night of Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage at the Gielgud Theatre the year before, the lights went out but the show still went on. The theatre's landlord Cameron Mackintosh insisted, as I reported at the time, that it wasn't because he hadn't fed the electricity meter, but was part of a West End power cut. As normal power couldn't be restored, they completed the show by keeping the house and stage working lights on, before someone rigged up a follow-spot beam, which threw a bit more light on the proceedings.

The usual lighting rig was also badly affected for the opening night of the original production of The HIstory Boys at the National Theatre in 2004 where the fire sprinklers went off, drenching the set, half an hour before curtain up. When it finally went up, an hour later, Nicholas Hytner took to the stage to tell us that his entire company had been onstage frantically trying to mop it up!

But the show must always go on – eventually. Another more recent National Theatre first night of Howard Barker's Scenes from an Execution in 2012 ground to a halt when a set change failed to occur, leaving Fiona Shaw stranded mid-pose on an upper level. It led to this comment from Charles Spencer in his review for the Daily Telegraph:

It would be unkind to suggest that this was the most entertaining moment in the show – but not untrue.