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Mark Shenton: The modern theatrical preview comes in many shapes and sizes

The Karaoke Theatre Company cast members Rachel Caffrey, Leigh Symonds, Andy Cryer, Jessie Hart, Sarah Follon and Louise Shuttleworth with Alan Ayckbourn (front). Photo: Tony Bartholomew
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Theatre doesn’t fully come alive until an audience joins it. The watching is an essential ingredient. I recently sat in on rehearsals of Alan Ayckbourn’s new play, The Karaoke Theatre Company, at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, and having untrained members of the public in the rehearsal room was crucial; we play a direct part in the action, and without us, there’s nothing to rehearse.

Trust Ayckbourn, ever the theatrical provocateur and experimentalist, to tie a play so closely to the audience’s direct involvement. But most theatremakers will tell you that they need the audience there. I met playwright and director Anthony Neilson on the day of the first preview of his new play Unreachable, written across the six weeks of its rehearsal, and he admitted frankly that they had something to show to an audience, but didn’t know if they even had a play yet. And that it won’t be set until the first night on July 8, that (self-imposed) deadline when the critics would arrive en masse at London’s Royal Court. But even then, it will go on to develop after that.

No wonder that previews are an essential part of the process. Yet they’ve simultaneously had their duration expanded in many cases, and been breached in others in the critical stakes. The latter began informally with bloggers and people who posted on bulletin boards, who, unconstrained by the niceties of embargoes and having bought their own tickets as paying customers, could comment the moment they had seen a show.

And then, of course, some newspapers started joining them: the first public preview for Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet last year was reviewed by critics from The Times and Daily Telegraph, and a columnist from the Daily Mail. The event was newsworthy, no question; and the show had been that year’s most eagerly anticipated. It had also set a month’s worth of previews on a three-month run, which felt excessive (and had also been sold at full price, not preview prices, which producer Sonia Friedman later admitted was the “wrong decision”). Still, there was general outrage among theatremakers that the ‘safe space’ of previews had been breached, while other critics were not happy that those papers had stolen a march on them, even if those who hadn’t reviewed it had the moral advantage.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is currently in previews at the Palace Theatre, London, and had set what Michael Billington called an “unprecedented” seven-week gap between its first preview and its official opening, which he said “makes nonsense of the whole notion of a ‘first night’ and raises serious questions about the idea of ‘previews'”. In fact, the producers recently pushed forward the date when critics would be admitted and reviews could start appearing, five days ahead of that gala opening; so those seven weeks were clearly not needed after all to get the show ‘critic ready’.

Yet they wouldn’t have known how smoothly their creative process would proceed, so were probably wise to build in a longer period and bring it forward, rather than postpone the opening if they encountered problems, as many productions have ended up doing in the past. Delays always ring alarm bells – the most famous example was the much-postponed Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which ended up previewing for more than seven months on Broadway (though the critics’ patience finally snapped after the third postponement and they went in anyway, buying tickets to see it and then returning for the official opening).

But what to make of the current previewing period for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which began performances at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, on June 30, but won’t open officially until July 28. The production actually began performances at Leicester’s Curve at the beginning of March, where the Telegraph (once again) took what they called a ‘first look’ at it, and declared: “The show is still in its infancy and will begin to find its feet as it heads towards the West End. Currently, it needs both a little more heat and a little more cool.” But since then it has toured for four months (sometimes with star Pixie Lott, sometimes not) – a further four weeks to preview in the West End, out of a total run of 12 weeks, is completely unjustified. The suspicion is simply that the producers want to delay critical scrutiny for as long as possible.

On the other hand, the creators of brand-new musical Eugenius! staged a public workshop reading of their show on June 29 – but this was no low-key affair. They hired nothing less than the London Palladium for it, and filled it, too (albeit with a heaving guest list and only a minority of paying customers). It’s one way of creating a buzz around a show.

But there is a world of difference between a one-off performance in the case of Eugenius! (which has received some blog reviews), and five months worth of performances for Breakfast at Tiffany’s before it is reviewed.

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