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Mark Shenton’s week: Is the National Theatre falling apart?

John Heffernan in Saint George and the Dragon. Photo: Johan Persson John Heffernan in Saint George and the Dragon. Photo: Johan Persson
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The National Theatre seems to have suffered a series of mishaps recently. Last week’s press night for Saint George and the Dragon finally went up at 7.25pm, when it should have started at 7pm. A manager appeared on stage to explain the reason for the delay was that people in the foyer were still trying to collect their tickets.

Later, I heard that the self-collection ticket machines had gone down, so all tickets for collection had to be issued manually. Of course, technical malfunctions occur and audiences have an annoying habit of turning up less than half an hour before the show is due to start, so they all have to be sorted in that time.

But none of this is unexpected. It reminds me of the feeling I always get at Heathrow – a sense that the airport is suddenly caught entirely by surprise large numbers of customers are coming and going.

“What is that big metal object that seems to have just landed here? Where do we put it?”

I seem to be forever waiting on the runway to find a gate, or sent to a remote stand from where you have to be bussed into the terminal. And then the airport staff seem surprised that there’s luggage to decant and passports to check.

A theatre should have robust contingency plans for ticket machines not working. They know, after all, that they’ve sold 1,160 tickets. Some audience members will already have received them in the post or printed them at home. So it’s not exactly rocket science to plan a distribution system for tickets that need to be collected.

But at the National, the general air of disorganisation didn’t just stretch to box-office queues that led to a very late start. The Olivier buffet area between the stalls and circle levels, once a hidden gem of catering in the building, was a wasteland, with no service being offered. The men’s loo in the stalls had a urinal blocked off with tape saying “Out of order”. A similar sign greeted those trying to use one of the lifts on the way out.

The National has only recently spent £80m on its NT Future project to transform the building. Although the riverside is now a mini-festival of bars, that’s no good if the building is falling apart inside.

That’s before you even get to the artistic policy, with a third dud in the Olivier – Saint George and the Dragon – after Salome and Common over the summer. As Quentin Letts, the harshest of its critics, said in his review for the Daily Mail: “Some people said Common was the worst thing they had seen at the Royal National Theatre. They might change their minds if they catch Saint George and the Dragon. Oh boy, it is risible! Below the standards of a bad university drama club production. ”

Yet none of this might matter: according to its annual report, published last week, the NT played to 93% capacity in 2016-17 – the best annual attendance in 12 years. And in the six months since April 2017, it has played to 89% capacity – a period that includes those aforementioned Olivier duds.

First-night etiquette

One reason shows have early curtains on first nights is that critics traditionally need to rush off to file their overnight reviews for the next morning’s papers. In the digital age, we often need to rush off to file them for online publication the same night.

In his wonderful book Being an Actor, Simon Callow described the first-night curtain call thus: “You’re aware that half the audience is rooting for you, so their cheers or heroic applause are touching, but not meaningful. All you’re aware of are the three people in the front row sitting on their hands and the disappearing backs of the critics, scurrying off to seal your fate. You try dimly to discern from their backs what that fate might be, but no Alfred Lunts they.”

I try to avoid scurrying too fast or visibly after a first night, even if I am on deadline for filing that night, as it is discourteous and unsettling to the actors. What difference will a minute or two joining the applause make to my night? Not wanting to get caught in the exit rush, I try to position myself to make a speedy exit as the lights come up. The only time I try to get out before the curtain calls is at Chichester, where it’s often a rush to make the 22.11 train back to London, rather than having to wait for a later one.

After last week’s curtain call of Young Frankenstein, Matt Hemley (The Stage’s news editor) tweeted: “Tonight at the press performance of Young Frankenstein a critic left before the cast had even taken their bows. Totally rude, right?”

Ann Treneman, chief critic of The Times, responded: “Ah, and there I was thinking I was making a quick getaway to avoid the crush, find a perch, write a review and deliver on deadline….”

But critics who rush away also missed part of the story that night: a curtain-call bow and speech by Mel Brooks. I’m glad I stuck around for that. Then I went home and filed my review, which was up online by 11.30pm.

Accuracy of running times

One of the key things to planning a night at the theatre is knowing the accurate running time – not just on first nights. Yet many theatres find this literally impossible to deliver.

When I saw What Shadows at the Park Theatre recently, the website gave a running time of 2 hours 15 minutes, but someone at the box office told me it was 2 hours 30 minutes. In the event, the show ran for nearly 2 hours 45 minutes.

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