Timings and delays are always hot topics – I know I spend a lot of time both internally stressing out about it, or ranting about to colleagues or on Twitter. There’s a special kind of ire reserved just for the theatre. With regular timings scheduled throughout a run, it really shouldn’t be difficult (under normal circumstances) to start a show on time. After all, everyone in that theatre has somewhere to be once the show is over; with the unpredictability and unreliability of trains, if our exit from the theatre is delayed from what we expected it can be the difference between just catching a train and a 29-minute wait for the next one.
As a critic, there are other things to consider too. Often a press night will be scheduled to start a bit earlier, theoretically allowing reviews to be published at a sensible time (and giving the cast & crew time to let their hair at an after party!). However, there’s a tendency for these performances to be even more delayed than regular ones, judging by my notes from the past 18 months…
The worst I’ve got a record of is the press night for The Wind in the Willows, which was due to start at 7pm but didn’t begin until 7.16pm – and then the second act was slightly delayed following the interval. Other press nights seem to be regularly delayed by an average of seven minutes, which doesn’t sound a lot but when you’re the kind of person who is generally settled in the auditorium as soon as the house opens, an extra seven minutes is a lot. And can definitely cost you a particular train time.
In some cases, it’s because it would be more disruptive to try and allow latecomers in once the show started, such as in a pub theatre (like A Funny Thing… at the Finborough – eight minutes late) and other smaller rooms (e.g. The Claim at Shoreditch Town Hall – seven minutes late). Although simply sticking to a ‘latecomers will not be admitted’ rule is fairer on everyone who’s already there – I know from personal experience that lateness isn’t always avoidable, but unless a way of sneaking people in is thought, you should have to accept that.
For bigger theatres, opening nights often end up being less about press and more about bringing in as many guests as possible. As fun as it can be to play ‘spot the genuinely famous person’ – and I will forever treasure the memory of sitting & having a casual chat with the Brian May at the Murder Ballad press night – I’m more of the opinion that these guests should be saved for a gala night. Have the press night, with critics invited (alongside a few personal guests of the cast & crew), and then the next night (or sometime in the future) bring in all of your ‘slebs for a gala performance to gush about it on social media afterwards. Because the issue with a big guest list is that the people tend to prop up the bars even more (or hang around drinks receptions), only casually strolling in when they’ve been gently herded out by staff.
What is lacking in some theatres (such as the Old Vic and Shakespeare’s Globe) is an announcement about the house opening. If you’re not waiting anywhere near the doors then you can remain ignorant about people filing into the auditorium until the five minute bell rings (if you can hear it over the crowd), and then there’s the chance you’ll need a last-minute dash to the toilet before disrupting everyone in your row as you make your way to the middle… The Old Vic has become especially notorious for delays, which is a shame as I love seeing everything they put on there. Every time I went to see Sylvia there was around a ten minute wait between the scheduled and actual start time – and a source tells me it was like that at every single show, which points it towards a lacklustre effort from staff in getting people out of the bars and into the auditorium.
If it turns out to be an amazing show then you can be a bit more forgiving of delays, as you ride the high of your experience (for example Yank! at Charing Cross – started seven minutes late, but was worth the wait) – but if it is unforgivably terrible (such as Knights of the Rose at the Arts – delayed by five minutes) your mood is bound to be altered. Generally speaking, anything up to about three minutes I consider an acceptable buffer, but once it starts getting later and later that’s when you’ll find me constantly checking my watch (and huffing). We all get annoyed when trains don’t leave at their advertised time, so why should theatre be any different?
What are your thoughts – should shows just automatically begin once we reach the scheduled start time, regardless of any other circumstances? Or are regular delays acceptable?