It’s a thing we often say in the theatre. Bad dress, good first night; meaning, if the dress rehearsal is rubbish, the first performance will probably be good. There’s no magic to this; it’s perfectly possibly to have good dress and first night; a truly awful production is likely to have a bad dress and first night. But if it is a real phenomenon - and my experience suggests that it is - it’s not hard to see why. The technical team are still rehearsing in the tech; certainly in ours on Wednesday afternoon lights were being added in and taken away during scenes. But most of all, the actors have gone as far as they can without an audience and now they are consciously holding back, not wanting to expend that energy that comes from contact with an auditorium full of people. So it’s likely to be flat. I was horrified to see several bad line dries in the dress, though I look back at this blog and discover exactly the same thing happened in the Plymouth dress.
Then the first preview happened. A full theatre, with a pretty extensive complement of Twitter friends. The show completely took off. I think three things happened. First, the cast’s energy and talent was unleashed from a relatively short re-rehearsal period. It’s striking that the show has come on a lot since Plymouth. It’s sharper in places, more hard-edged. It’s a lot quicker too. This gives the show more bewildering, hysterical energy. It refuses the pretence at depth; it keeps things interestingly blank and odd.
Second, it was a very friendly, supportive audience. They were in the mood to enjoy it and they enjoyed laughing. We even got laughs much of the way through ‘Northern Lights’ which I’ve never seen before. To be honest, I probably don’t want that but the play didn’t seem to suffer. And the scene does hush people by the end. The Twitterati gave ‘James Ward’ a big laugh which immediately perplexed the other 80% of the audience. The fullness of the audience meant that the laughter came as a roar. There was momentum to it. And Ruth’s long speech in ‘It’s a Totally New Concept in Light Entertainment’ got a round of applause. Some people even stood at the curtain call. Not sure I’ve ever had that before.
Third, it’s London. There is a noticeable difference between the London and Plymouth audience. The young Plymouth audience was hugely responsive, chatty, laughing. The older audience was thoughtful, reflective, moved. It struck me that it was rare to find an audience that did both at once. It may be that the play is a bit metropolitan, requiring that immersion in the continual bullshit of London life to both find it funny and upsetting, to balance the laughter and tears. (Which sounds very Russian, now I say that.) I should say, I was very happy with the Plymouth responses. I know there were certain jokes that never worked there (‘Abi Titmuss’, for example) and the cast have already noted that certain things are going over much easier at the Soho. But that’s also because the production has changed. It’s a more brutal and breathless experience.