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David Benedict: I’m with Sondheim – Why can’t they do the last night first?

Patti LuPone and Rosalie Craig in Company. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Having caught the Lucinda Coxon adaptation of Harriet Lane’s novel Alys, Always during its final week at London’s Bridge Theatre – reader, I loved Sylvestra Le Touzel having a ball as an Anna-Wintour-wannabe books editor on a newspaper that was not a million miles from the Observer where both Lane and I once worked – I was reminded of the awkward fact of the critic’s life: we spend most of our time going to press nights. Yes, that sounds fatuous, but hear me out.

Press nights are uniquely feverish and not in a good way. In rehearsals actors work out what a play is about; in previews and during the run they develop and deliver their performance with, and to, the audience; then on press night, with the house stuffed with people like me – pen in hand – they take an exam in the subject.

It’s judgement day (sorry, night) and you’re about to be awarded marks out of 10 – well, five, if we’re talking star ratings, which I loathe, but that’s for another day – and no matter how hard you try, you cannot banish the sense of near-frigid terror.

‘Press nights are uniquely feverish and not in a good way’

That explains Stephen Sondheim’s delighted interval response to the Gielgud Theatre audience’s ecstatic applause for Saturday night’s closing performance of Company. In the never-offstage central role, which for the previous 48 years has been played by a man, Rosalie Craig couldn’t start speaking for well over a minute because of the wall of sound as the entire audience yelled its approval, giving the first of three standing ovations during the show. Allowing himself a grin, Sondheim asked: “Why can’t they do the last night first?”

I was a mostly out-of-work young actor when I first discovered the giddy feeling of a last-night audience losing its mind. In the late 1980s I fell in love with opera and, armed with my unemployment card for the concession tickets, night after night I sat way up in the cheapest of the Coliseum’s 2,359 seats devouring everything I could see and hear on the English National Opera’s stage.

Which is why, one very early, very chilly winter morning, I found myself queuing for tickets for the first night of a much-anticipated return of Nicholas Hytner’s scintillating production of Handel’s Xerxes starring (that’s the word) Ann Murray. As I hugged myself against the cold, the person next to me on the pavement asked if I was queuing for Lynn Seymour. “No,” I said, puzzling at what a ballet fan was doing in the queue. He patiently explained that Seymour had retired years ago but was sneaking back to classical ballet with a one-off, three-nights-only performance as Tatiana in the then rarely seen ballet Onegin and tickets were going on sale that morning. I watched contemporary dance but was pretty ballet illiterate – I’d only seen the legendary Seymour’s astonishingly dramatic dancing on TV recordings – so when I finally reached the front of the queue, I bought tickets for both Xerxes and the last of her three nights.

‘I was a mostly out-of-work young actor when I first discovered the giddy feeling of a last-night audience losing its mind’

She was mesmerising. Technically way too old for the role of the love-struck teenager, her incarnation of the character, and the way she allowed us to feel her emotions, was so captivating that no one noticed. The only thing more memorable was the response as the curtain fell. Released from thunderstruck silence, we went bananas. The unforgettable sound ringing round the theatre wasn’t cheering, it was a sustained roar – with flowers raining down on to the stage.

I was reminded of that at the opening night of Emilia. Sprung from its 11-performance run in Michelle Terry’s inaugural season at Shakespeare’s Globe into the West End by producers Eleanor Lloyd (see p12), Kate Pakenham, Nica Burns and Eilene Davidson, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s play isn’t just about rediscovering a forgotten woman, it is a call to arms. Her writing and the performances by the all-female cast of 19 – now that’s what I call ambitious producing – are fired by mounting anger that, in the final speech, turns white hot. Bursting out of the confines of the Vaudeville’s proscenium arch, it catapulted the audience to its feet in a way I cannot remember seeing outside of musical theatre.

This wasn’t traditional first night investors applauding their largesse: the undeniable charge in the auditorium was electrifying. And timely. Emilia’s rallying cry was echoed last week by outrage at the National Theatre’s press release announcing a season in which women were near invisible. Rufus Norris and Lisa Burger, the National’s joint chief executives, were forced to issue a response that went a considerable way to explaining the wider context of the NT’s far more gender-balanced year as a whole and its ongoing implementation of plans for 50/50 representation by 2021. But Emilia’s roar is a necessary reminder that #MeToo is about the future as well as the past.

Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/david-benedict

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