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Ask Lyn: Is it fair to review theatre previews?

Ask Lyn: Is it fair to review theatre previews?

Ask Lyn: Is it fair to review theatre previews? cover photo on Stagedoor
"Dear Lyn, I’m going to see Ian McKellen play Hamlet in Windsor later in the summer and looking forward to it. I know the run has started, so why have I only seen one review?" - Katie, Clapham Junction

The answer Katie is because the press night is not scheduled until next month. Normally critics wait until they are invited to see a performance. But in this instance, one critic-- Dominic Cavendish of the Telegraph –, has conveniently ignored that convention and bought a ticket so he can go in early and write a review.

Apparently, 82-year-old McKellen, in his very first performance of this production in front of a paying audience emerges, according to Cavendish, “with his head held reasonably high,” adding, “it may not yet be his finest hour.” The yet is the crucial word here because as Great Aunt Cecily says this is like turning up two hours early to a party to which you haven’t been invited while the hosts are still in their underwear and then broadcasting to the world whether or not it’s a good party on the basis of the preparations you have witnessed. I did point out that I thought it very unlikely that Ian McKellen was still in his underwear, but she retorted that his King Lear was completely in the buff at one point.

Most shows have preview performances for very good reasons: it is often impossible to tell how the production will land and which bits will work, and which bits don’t until you get it in front of an audience. The audience’s presence is an essential part of the process. The deal is simple: they get to see the show first—which if it turns out to be as hot ticket-- and at a discounted price. A production really can change substantially during the preview performances and almost always for the better. Some directors think that the real work happens during the preview performances.

I have some sympathy for Cavendish. He was almost certainly under very strong pressure from his editor who would have a complete disregard for conventions of theatre or know how theatre is made and simply wants to be first with the news. The Times did something similar when Benedict Cumberbatch played Hamlet at the Barbican. It’s hard for a journalist to resist but they must not least because a failure to do so makes it look as if they are disrespecting theatre’s processes and have mislaid their good manners.

It’s disrespectful to McKellen too who has been such a force for good in theatre over a career spanning more than half a century and who has raised and donated so much money to theatre and its workers. It is very much like your driving test examiner turning up and passing or failing you when you have still got weeks of practice ahead: why would any journalist who claims to love theatre want to pre-judge simply in the scurry for a scoop.

Cover image: Sir Ian McKellen as Hamlet. Photo by Sean Gleason.

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Lyn Gardner

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