Cherwell Stage: why bother?

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Take a look at the review below, if you haven’t already. It’s good, no? Jamie Randall turned up to a preview of an Icarianly ambitious Peer Gynt. They asked him to imagine the fully orchestrated epic on the basis of nothing more than the tinny sound issuing from their laptop speakers. He did. And he was impressed. Impressed enough to say that the real thing will be well worth attending.

There would be a similar preview of A Streetcar Named Desire in this box. Really, we would have loved to have sent our reviewer along to some obscure lecture theatre at the back end of Oriel to watch a vignette of not-quite-ready scenes. But the team behind Streetcar has decided that press previews are a waste of time. They’ve already sold nine out of every ten of their tickets, so why would they need the publicity? A press preview would only be an unnecessary hassle for the actors. They need to spend their valuable time on more important things, like dressing up in tight black t-shirts and denim dresses to pout at the OxStu fashion photographers.

Instead, the cast treated Cherwell Stage to an interview in which they revealed all sorts of things that would make our readers gasp. Apparently it’s quite difficult to learn to speak in a New Orleans accent, and they’ve already sold out their first three performances. Director Anna Hextall thinks her cast ‘have got to have the confidence to be fearless on stage.’ Lead actress Ruby Thomas is ‘really nervous’ about playing Blanche DuBois. Did they mention they’ve already sold out their first three performances? Then they performed an excerpt of the play that lasted a whole three minutes.

This is not an isolated incident. Something like one in three productions cannot be bothered to arrange a press preview. ‘It’s such a fag,’ says Generic Producer. ‘It causes such disruption to our rehearsal schedule, my love, and it’s just so stressful for the actors. Let’s just concentrate on making up an unprecedentedly absurd flavour of ice cream for G&Ds and send out daily Facebook messages with more kisses than words, shall we? Cranberry and Amaretto, do you think?’

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So let’s face up to the big question: who needs press previews? Or, at the bottom of it all, who needs theatre critics? Well, productions do, for starters. Even the biggest ones.

The reason is feedback. A student critic from Cherwell or OxStu is obviously not going to be a professional. Sometimes, the performance they see will be little more than an ugly larva of the final play. But when you read a theatre preview in the student papers, you are reading the considered judgement of somebody who knows and cares a lot about the stage, somebody who is outside the closed circle of the cast. Somebody who, unlike the Oxford Theatre Review writer, has had more than a couple of hours to think about your play.

But the Cherwell and OxStu Stage sections are not your private army. We’re not here to gratify marketing managers, or ourselves. Well, occasionally ourselves. But mostly we’re here to tell readers about plays. It’s our job to make sure that Oxford theatre is accessible to anybody, and to prevent it from becoming one massive pretentious gaggle of hyenas cackling at OUDS in-jokes. Hopefully on the basis of Jamie Randall’s review people will go and watch Peer Gynt who would ordinarily never have considered going to see an opera.

So here’s our message to play producers who care about more than selling out in every sense of the phrase: give us previews. It doesn’t matter if the actors don’t know all the lines yet, or if the set falls over. Reviewers are there to see what your cast can do and to get a feel for the play, not to niggle over technical issues. If you want to get a feel for your audience and a measure of your production, trust us.

To everybody else, I can only quote my fellow gentleman of the stage press, Jonny Sims: ‘Oi! Wankers! Yank your gobs off each other’s phalluses…’

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