Get our free email newsletter with just one click

Andrzej Lukowski: If you’re going to break theatre review embargoes, have some balls about it

Andrew Garfield in Angels in America at the National Theatre, London. Photos: Helen Maybanks Andrew Garfield in Angels in America at the National Theatre, London. Photos: Helen Maybanks
by -

It wasn’t so long ago that the British press still had the nads to wander into a major new theatre show uninvited, during previews, and just review the hell out of the thing, consequences be damned.

But if I’m not mistaken, the general opprobrium meted out to The Times’ blithely damning first-preview review of 2015’s Benedict Cumberbatch-starring Hamlet changed things, or at least caused enough of a backlash that nobody’s tried to pull exactly the same trick since.

There were howls of outrage when the Telegraph reviewed Angels in America

To be fair, there are only a limited number of openings of sufficient national or international interest to even be worth the hassle of trying to sneak into, perhaps one or two a year, tops. So give it time. But there was a sense that when the next big one after Hamlet came around – last year’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – most publications had decided that flagrantly alienating Potter’s rabid fanbase, plus West End super-producer Sonia Friedman, was probably a bad idea.

Or had they? Kind of. One of the more tedious developments of recent times is the non-review-review, wherein an embargo will be breached in the most boring way imaginable in order to feed ‘content’ into the ravenous internet – or an eye-catching front page that heavily implies you have reviewed a show.

On May 2 there were howls of outrage from rule-abiding critics when the Telegraph – the worst offender by a country mile, it has to be said – had shamelessly reviewed this year’s big blockbuster, the National Theatre’s Angels in America, the best part of a week before theatre critics were invited to see it.

I was annoyed too, until I saw what it was: film critic Tim Robey had been dispatched to write an assessment of film star Andrew Garfield’s performance, not the whole show. Hence, by a slightly convoluted logical twist, it wasn’t a review (even though that’s what it was).

Similarly, the first preview of last year’s Cursed Child was covered by the Telegraph via an execrably dull news report that combined fan reactions with a dispassionate account of a few of the show’s most trivial details. Meanwhile, the Daily Mirror waded in with what was effectively a glowing rehash of the press release, while the Mail’s showbiz hack Baz Bamigboye tweeted out a largely banal series of minor revelations that nonetheless wound up the #KeepTheSecrets crowd.

Still, it didn’t cause a huge stir because they weren’t technically reviews: witness how the Telegraph (again) largely ducked the aggro lobbed at the Times’ swashbuckling first night-review by timidly smothering theirs in caveats.

Is this all a fiendishly clever way of running rings around the fearsome Embargo Police? Perhaps it is, a bit, but I’m not really sure what the rewards are – some clicks, for sure, but the more meekly you present it, the less the general public will be interested.

Personally, I’m not in the business of breaking embargoes, because I am nice and because Sonia Friedman would probably crush me like a bug if I angered her. But my biggest problem with others doing it is how wimpy it all is. If you’re going to break an embargo, do it with some panache – don’t skulk around apologetically. The Times review of Hamlet was, in many ways, a terrible idea, but at least there was a certain jaw-dropping audacity to simply steaming into the production.

If you’re going to be a dick about it, do it in style.

We need your help…

When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.

The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.

We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.

Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.