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Welcome to the National Theatre’s critics’ disco (aka Here Lies Love premiere)

One of the first things Nick Hytner programmed after he took over the reins at the National Theatre was Jerry Springer – the Opera, with its famous song I Just Wanna (Fucking) Dance, thrillingly rendered by the glorious Alison Jiear.

And this week, it wasn’t just Shawntel, the character she was playing, who wanted to dance at the National Theatre – so did the entire audience, or at least those who were standing, at the UK premiere of Here Lies Love.

As I noted in my review for The Stage [1], however:

The audience participation is never coercive or intrusive – you could easily not participate. But this is a show that you are more likely to want to feel part of it.

And at least one of my colleagues admitted she felt left out watching from the seats that look down over the action from the two levels above. In her review [2], Libby Purves notes at the end of the show:

As we wipe our eyes, the ensemble dance – many Filipino in reality – dance crazily for us again. And we in the gallery slightly wish we’d opted for the floor tickets. But then I wouldn’t have had a notebook, to tell you about it properly.

Photo: Tristram Kenton [3]
Photo: Tristram Kenton

Actually, some of those of us who were on the floor had our notebooks to hand, though Henry Hitchings seems to have dispensed with his – he didn’t have one last week either, sitting right in front of me at the Donmar Warehouse for the opening of Henry IV. (I’ll never forget when, bored with a play I was watching at the National myself, I peered over at the notebook of the colleague sitting beside me, and saw she was simply compiling a shopping list: apples, soap, detergent…)

Watching Here Lies Love, your attention is taken in so many different directions, all at once, that you barely have time to take notes anyway. And one of the places I was irresistibly drawn to, of course, was to the faces of the critics who had opted to take seats instead of stand. Sitting side by side in a mini rogues’ gallery were Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Dominic Cavendish and Quentin Letts, while sitting elsewhere I spotted Georgina Brown, Christopher Hart, Mark Lawson, Ian Shuttleworth, Matt Wolf, and Libby Purves.

Of course, they were watching us, too: in her review, Libby noted:

A third of the audience on foot used as the People, on a wide and ever-changing floor down below (respeck to Times, Observer, Standard, and The Stage crits, not to mention boppin’ Baz Bamigboye of the Mail).

Yes, Dominic Maxwell, Susannah Clapp, the aforementioned Henry Hitchings and my good self were all standing (and occasionally dancing); so were Time Out’s Andzrej Lukowski, Matt Trueman, The Stage’s editor Alistair Smith and news editor Matt Hemley, the Evening Standard’s arts editor Fiona Hughes and BBC online arts writer Tim Masters, among others.

In a tweet, Masters noted:

I didn’t actually see David Byrne myself, which is just as well – I might have felt even more self-conscious. As it is, I was clearly being watched. An actor and director who doesn’t actually follow me on Twitter tweeted afterwards, “Loved seeing u busting moves tonight!”

Yikes! I didn’t want to be that conspicuous. But then in the theatre we are often watched by, and watch, other audience members. Here Lies Love makes people-watching part of the show.

Read more columns from Mark Shenton [6]