In January, it’s difficult not to be overwhelmed by the sheer weight of adverts – whether on posters, in newspapers, or bursting from our TV screens – screaming of a shop’s “biggest ever sales event”.
It feels like everything must be an ‘event’ these days, with all the excitement that word implies. Just as the most popular mainstream TV shows – from The X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing and The Masked Singer to Love Island – are promoted as must-watch event TV.
There has always been hype – Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth comes to mind – expressed in different ways, but today it feels as though something doesn’t exist unless it’s marketed as a major event.
It’s creeping into theatre and has certainly come to replace a previous theatrical marketing cliché – the ‘theatrical coup’. That now sounds decidedly old-fashioned beside the flashier title of ‘event’, but may once have been more apt for many productions.
Last week in London, two shows opened: the new Les Misérables at the Sondheim Theatre and the Beckett Triple Bill directed by Trevor Nunn at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Both are theatrical triumphs.
Les Mis has long been a theatrical event. On the Jermyn Street Theatre’s website, the Beckett production is described as a “must-see event”. In every sense, what it has pulled off at its intimate 70-seat theatre with this production is a major achievement and one that will be hard to beat this year.
The seasoned theatregoer is likely to understand and potentially agree with Jermyn Street Theatre’s marketing, and a die-hard Beckett fan will certainly approve of it being called an “event”.
However, will less-regular attendees take an altogether different view over the use of the term “a major event”? This certainly does not diminish Jermyn Street or the production, but is good acting and writing on a relatively spartan stage enough to fulfil the public’s expectation of an event – unless a major film star is performing?
If every advertising campaign claims a show is the ‘biggest and best’, it risks desensitising the public. People will stop listening or believing and then miss out when it genuinely is the case.
A marketing overkill also risks adding pressure to a production that it may struggle to live up to. This has been seen among some recent Off-West End immersive theatre productions.
Shows such as these, which get hyped as ‘must see’ theatrical experiences, can fall foul of focusing too much on marketing and not enough attention on the script. Hype can only take you so far and a production laying such claims must ensure it delivers at every level, or an audience will leave feeling underwhelmed and short-changed.
Of course, with all that competition, shows need eye-catching marketing to sell tickets. But I can’t help feeling that the term used to hold more power for punters and industry alike. It’s gone the way of the standing ovation in UK theatres – once it had to be earned, but today it feels like an obligatory part of the theatregoing experience.
Ultimately, it’s the audiences that make shows an event – such as those who embraced Les Mis 35 years ago when it opened to scathing reviews but helped turn it into a genuine event show. It’s a good lesson for productions today that becoming a ‘theatrical event’ once had to be earned.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan