Sam Mendes once said there is no such thing as the history of British theatre, only the history of British press nights. That observation takes us closer to understanding the taboo that constrains journalists from reviewing the opening performance of a West End play. A dozen or so previews take place before the critics are invited in for a star-studded gala, or ‘press night’, which is fixed by the producer to make the show appear in its most seductive light. Newspapers are usually wary of censorship in any form, so their assent to this convention must be considered a great anomaly.
The vanity of the lead actor is a significant element. A first night is usually full of hazards and mishaps as the cast acquaint themselves with the props, costumes, door-handles and so on. Major stars are sensitive to public ridicule and they would not relish being mocked for upsetting a milk jug or bashing into a cocktail cabinet or plunging a dagger into the wrong duke or accidentally head-butting Helen Mirren.
But the reputation of actors is merely an excuse for the embargo. The issue here is the power of the press. And the desire to control the press. Theatre people dislike and misunderstand the press and yet they covet the influence that newspapers appear to wield. An impresario looks at a critic just as you or I might look at a small child holding a loaded Uzi made of solid gold. If you handle the negotiation successfully you can walk away with a lot of loot. But if you blunder you’ll end up with your brains all over the wall.