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Mark Shenton’s week: The rise of the mid-show ovation is a worrying trend

Amber Riley in Dreamgirls. Photo: Blair Caldwell
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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In a recent interview in the Theatre Lives series, Michael Grandage said, "Opening previews will be opening nights before too much longer in some form. They already are, if you like, because of social media. You are opening to a body of opinion before you have officially opened and it’s all valid, at some level."

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Producers are only too happy to capitalise on favourable word of mouth at that early stage; before the West End press night of The Book of Mormon, for instance, there were double-page ads in the papers using quotes from public tweets about the show. Of course, they are tempted to cry foul when advance word is not so favourable – evident by the furore that engulfed (and seriously damaged) the original production of Love Never Dies, which was early on dubbed 'Paint Never Dries' by the West End Whingers and never really recovered; the label hung around the show like an albatross.

Some newspapers no longer want to wait, either: most (in)famously, when the Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet opened at the Barbican two summers ago, the Times and the Daily Telegraph both sent in critics (and the Daily Mail sent in a columnist) to review it. Their stated excuse: the show was charging full price for the show from the very beginning, and it should therefore have been ready. (Producer Sonia Friedman subsequently admitted that this pricing structure was an error, telling BBC's Front Row, "In retrospect and in hindsight, I made the wrong decision. And I can say that I have absolutely revised my company’s policy as a result of what happened".)

Last week, as it happens, I snuck into an early preview of Friedman's newest show, Dreamgirls: a friend had a spare paid ticket and invited me. I'm not going to break any embargoes here by writing about it, but it was interesting to see it that early on, in a packed and palpably enthusiastic house (who leapt to their feet, The X Factor-style, spontaneously at least three times across the evening).

I paid Friedman the courtesy of alerting her to the fact that I was coming in, as I didn't want to spring the surprise on her that I was there. Afterwards, we texted and she admitted that she was anxious about my response, as she'd noticed that I'd not joined in the spontaneous leaping up. (I may have been on a private visit, but I was clearly being watched.) Actually, that was one of the few notes I shared: though it can't be helped that audiences behave this way, it's a pity that they've become thus trained and primed by shows such as The X Factor to break the continuity of a performance like this.

West End audiences have followed the American habit of giving virtually everything they see a standing ovation now, but its spread to frequent mid-show ones is a worrying new trend.

I will, of course, be returning to see the show to review it closer to the official opening night on December 14.

Going in late

The flip side of going in early is going in late: once the opening night furore has died down, it's interesting to see how a show is playing. I couldn't get to the official opening of the West End transfer of Half a Sixpence on November 17, as it clashed with the opening of the Royal Shakespeare Company's The Tempest at Stratford. Besides, the producer Cameron Mackintosh wasn't specifically targeting critical coverage, as he had all the quotes he needed adorning the theatre from its Chichester run.

But a funny thing happened when I put a request in for tickets to see it again in the West End: there was a nearly two-week delay till they were confirmed. When I queried this with Nicholas Allott, Cameron Mackintosh's long-serving managing director, he told me there was a problem: his boss was very upset with my original (three-star) review for The Stage. It seems that nothing but unqualified raves were expected. And yes, it got a couple of those (from the Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard).

But revisiting the show in town would give me the chance not just to see how it was adapted for a more conventional proscenium arch stage, as opposed to the wide thrust at Chichester, but also reassess it. Maybe I had been too harsh?

I was allowed back. And I won't re-review here, as I wasn't invited to do that, but I'm pleased to have seen it again. It fits very snugly into the Coward – and lead Charlie Stemp is an amazing new find in the young Michael Crawford mould of ready charm and insouciance (I wasn't around for Crawford's youth, but I'm referring to his wondrous appearance as Cornelius Hackl in the 1969 film version of Hello, Dolly!). I only wished I was seeing him in Me and My Girl instead.

The Donmar marathon

I recently sat through the entirety of Taylor Mac's incredible one-man show A 24-Decade History of Popular Song in New York, presented consecutively over 24 hours without a break, so I'm hardly a lightweight when it comes to theatrical marathons.

But this week I had to skip out part of the Donmar's three-play Shakespearean day at King's Cross, the first two parts of which (Julius Caesar and Henry IV) I had previously seen anyway when they were at the Donmar Warehouse in 2012 and 2014 respectively. My 'day job' involves a lot of writing about the theatre I've seen, and I'm afraid I was on deadlines for four interviews last week. So I saw Julius Caesar in the morning, went back home to finish a feature, and then returned for the evening premiere of The Tempest. It's a pity I didn't get the full epic sweep of the day, but I was relieved not to have to endure the punishing plastic chairs for its entirety. 

I respect the artistic choice of those seats – we are supposed to be in a prison gym set up as a theatre – but given the comfort of the adjoining theatres at King's Cross where Lazarus, In the Heights and The Railway Children are also playing, I'd have rather had that.

Still, this collection of theatre tents is an unqualified success. It's amazing how solid they feel, with large comfortable bars and (praise be) good loos, too. It's a new pop-up version of the West End, and can be established wherever there's a good central site. Let's hope this trend continues.

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