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Andrzej Lukowski: Why isn’t Heathers inviting critics to review?

Heathers will star Carrie Hope Fletcher (third from right), pictured here with the house band which will perform during the show's run. Photo: Richard Southgate

There is a long and occasionally noble tradition of producers not inviting critics to shows. That is their right.

Sometimes, there’s a sensible reason. Tom Hiddleston’s tiny, low-key Hamlet at RADA [1] didn’t allocate any of its tickets to reviewers last year, because there weren’t very many.

From time to time there’s an attempt to ban an individual writer, which rarely ends well. One of the few things Lyn Gardner [2] and Quentin Letts have in common is that they’ve been barred from shows, but have bought tickets and gone along anyway.

There are unusual cases. Hampstead theatre’s Downstairs venue ‘shielded’ new writing from critics for several years before unceremoniously dropping the policy. And Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark [3] famously dragged out its previews for 182 performances.

The UK premiere of smash Off-Broadway show Heathers the Musical, a rock musical adaptation of the high school satire, is the latest show to not invite critics.

Andy Fickman’s production already has an eight-week-run sewn up. It’s virtually sold out, with co-producer Paul Taylor-Mills declaring: ‘‘I’m thrilled that within a year of The Other Palace [4] we have a project that has gone from workshop to a fully realised production.”

Interestingly, none of the breathless slew of press releases despatched about Heathers refer to either a preview or a press night, and nobody seems to have noticed until the last couple of weeks, when the show began its run.

I was told the production – which has a £75 top ticket price – should be viewed as a sort of work-in-progress, and that press will be invited at a future date, possibly at a different venue. A colleague at another publication was told it’s possible a press night will appear for The Other Palace run, but only late on.

There are a few iffy things about this. Producers Taylor-Mills and Bill Kenwright have the right not to invite critics. But given a press night is standard practice for a new production, it would be nice if they gave a reason.

The suggestion they will do so in the future – but won’t now – implies the show isn’t yet all it could be. If the whole run is just a glorified preview, people surely have the right to know this before forking out £150 for a pair of seats.

Whatever audiences think of the opinions of theatre critics, the fact they’ve been sent in usually designates that a show is notionally ‘finished’. Here no such line is drawn.

There is probably no bad faith here, just producers wanting to control the narrative around a show. They may succeed. Heathers is probably small enough to avoid critics buying tickets uninvited. And it may be cheesy enough to keep influential bloggers away.

This production has virtually sold out on the strength of the Heathers name, it scarcely needs reviews. But when you’re unashamedly charging your audience top dollar, inviting scrutiny – or explaining why you’re not – feels like a politeness to them, as much as anything.