The National Theatre springs a surprise

The National Theatre. Photo: Philip Vile.
The National Theatre. Photo: Philip Vile.
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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Theatre can be a fast response mechanism in the way that film can't. But who knew that the National had a play ready and waiting in the wings to announce a play about press intrusion and phone hacking, the moment that verdicts were announced in the Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson  trials?

No sooner did the jury return (most of) their verdicts at lunchtime on Tuesday than an e-mail popped up from the National's head of press inviting press to an announcement by Nick Hytner and Richard Bean yesterday morning. And although I wasn't able to go myself, the press release that turned up soon after the press conference revealed a new play by Bean called Great Britain would open exactly six days later!

According to the press release,  this "fast and furious new play is an anarchic satire about the press, the police and the political establishment. Billie Piper plays Paige Britain, ambitious young news editor of The Free Press, a tabloid newspaper locked in a never-ending battle for more readers."

According to Bean, quoted in The Guardian, "It is a grotesque satire which, of course, does draw on current events, but it is in no way docu-drama." The trial verdicts had no bearing on the play's content, but they had waited for them to be delivered before announcing the play for "better safe than sorry" reasons. ""We're not stupid people," said Bean. "Of course we've had lawyers read it and they thought it was very funny, which is what a writer needs really."

The National have now gone into over-drive to get it up and out there: we also immediately received press invitations to review it at its very first public performance on Monday. As The Stage reported yesterday: "The show will be rehearsed to an invited audience during this week, in place of previews."

Maybe I simply didn't have my ear close enough to the ground, but the biggest surprise for me is that this play remained a secret for so long. With all the leakage on social media and a large cast and creative team working at full tilt on it, you'd have thought that word would have got out that this play was at least in preparation. Bravo that they managed to keep a lid on it.

Of course the challenge is now to sell it at such short notice. I'm sure the press coverage of its sudden announcement will galvanise some box office action, but of course the even more important thing is that it's actually good. So a fast critical response is also essential. The biggest luck, though, is the press night diary is actually free of any other major openings on Monday. So they don't have to rain on anyone else's parade.

And talking of press nights, we also got a very late notification yesterday Hampstead Theatre has postponed its planned opening tonight of its premiere of Beth Steel's Wonderland to next Tuesday. We've been told that this follows " the time consuming installation of an extremely technically complicated set," and is "to ensure the safety of the cast." Except that the show is already in previews – so I assume (or at least hope) that they are performing it safely already.

The notification also came with an additional safety warning to the audience: "Please also note that due to the design of Wonderland, your seats may be located in an area with an iron grating floor.  We therefore cannot accommodate any high heeled shoes in the auditorium, and request that you wear flat shoes." Interestingly, no such warning yet appears on the theatre's website.