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‘You immediately tell your friends to cancel their tickets’ – what’s it like to star in a flop? | Stage

Movies, TV shows and books can all get terrible reviews and small audiences, but the difference when this happens in theatre is that the actors have to go back on stage and remake the work just after critics have declared it disastrous. “It is so crushing for actors to have to go on night after night bearing the weight of failure,” says Richard Eyre, artistic director of the Royal National Theatre from 1987 to 1997. “And that’s one of the reasons actors are such stoics. For directors and writers, there’s a sense of disembowelment you carry round if you’ve had a major failure – but they can just fuck off to Tenerife, and some do. Actors are obliged to soak it up.”

Actor Michael Simkins, who wrote the theatrical memoir What’s My Motivation?, says: “If I had to articulate what it feels like to be in the middle of a play you feel is dying on its arse, it’s a cold sense of dread, like battery acid in your stomach. After terrible reviews, a sort of numbness sets in that is still there for the second night. You haven’t yet fully processed it. The first thing you do is tell all your friends who have booked tickets to cancel.”

Both men express sympathy and empathy for all involved in Moira Buffini’s play Manor, which received a rare one-star review in the Guardian, and an even scarcer zero rating from the Times. That mauling also brought back memories for Jonathan Moore, a playwright, opera director and librettist who, as a young actor, appeared in Nicholas Wright’s The Gorky Brigade at the Royal Court in 1979. Wright later wrote two of the National Theatre’s most successful new plays – Mrs Klein and Vincent in Brixton – but his early work about Russian politics received brutal reviews. In the Daily Mail, Jack Tinker wrote: “The writer should be sent to the salt mines of Siberia to learn how to write.” Moore remembers “looking up at one of the boxes by the side of the stage, and there was a guy reading a newspaper all through the play”.

Zero stars … Manor was recently savaged by critics.
Zero stars … Manor was recently savaged by critics. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Simkins once suffered a stark example of the unevenness of an acting career. In the late 1980s, he portrayed a young Italian-American opposite Michael Gambon in Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge, directed by Alan Ayckbourn. After playing to 97% capacity at the National, it transferred to the West End for six months. Over the next two years, though, Simkins featured in two legendary disasters. As a bonus for the success of the Miller, NT artistic director Peter Hall invited Ayckbourn to do anything he wanted. He chose John Ford’s 1633 revenge drama, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore.

“The first night party was in the Olivier theatre bar,” recalls Simkins. “As I pushed open the door from backstage, four actor friends who had been in the audience all avoided my gaze as I headed towards them. They looked down into their drinks. Then someone struck up a conversation about a play he’d seen me in six months before.” According to Daniel Rosenthal’s book The National Theatre Story, ’Tis Pity half-filled (or worse) the 1,100-seat Olivier across 68 performances. Strikingly, Ayckbourn’s official website, usually maintained punctiliously, still notes that the opening and closing dates of the show are “to be confirmed”.

Simkins seemed assured a happier experience when cast in Michael Frayn’s 1990 play Look Look. Frayn’s previous two shows – Noises Off and Benefactors – had been big London and New York hits, and propitiously this new work returned to the meta-theatrical comedy genre of Noises Off, one of the most successful plays of the 20th century. But where that play had been set backstage, Look Look dramatised an audience, so that ticket-buyers met a mirror image of the stalls on stage.

Simkins played the man in seat G15. During rehearsals, he “had the sense it wasn’t working but I looked around and lots of people were laughing. So I thought it must be OK. There were vague murmurings between the actors at lunch, when we went off for our egg and chips. ‘Do you think this is working?’ But it was never fully articulated.”

Peter Hall once wrote that no play that seriously fails to engage an audience at its first performance can be saved. “I remember,” says Simkins, “the general sense, in the first couple of previews, that the opening 20 minutes worked wonderfully. Then it sort of died like a battery running down.” Despite the dramatist “rewriting eight to 10 pages every day, on the first night it was absolutely obvious the play didn’t work.” One critic reported that “one leaves the theatre open-mouthed at the sheer awful” spectacle, and another of “having no idea what the usually adept Mr Frayn thought he was up to”.

In commercial theatre, failure brings economic stings for actors. Yet such was the commercial confidence in Look Look that Simkins had been “signed up for 52 weeks at a grand a week, by far the most I had ever earned”. But after the reviews, he was looking at unemployment within a fortnight.

‘£32.50 for this?’ … Stephen Fry in Michael Frayn’s Look Look at London’s Aldwych theatre in 1990.
‘£32.50 for this?’ … Stephen Fry in Michael Frayn’s Look, Look at London’s Aldwych theatre in 1990. Photograph: Alastair Muir/Shutterstock

Drama school includes no training for this: you have to learn on the flop. Jonathan Moore likens the experience of playing out the last weeks of a doomed show to “being in one of those football teams that has been relegated with nine or 10 games of the season still left. You want to keep your standards up as you’re a pro. But you’re only human so you feel crushed. There’s a deep collective disappointment. And there’s something about theatre crowds, that they tend to become a single entity. At a hit, 1,000 people encourage each other to laugh and applaud. In a half-empty theatre, they somehow ramp up each other’s misery.”

Theatregoers who show up for an unloved production are unlikely, says Simkins, to be short-changed by the cast. “There is a professional integrity. It’s often when plays are failing that actors kick in and really do their best. Conversely, in a copper-bottomed success, some of the actors stop trying. And it’s driven by fear because it’s always possible that the show where you decide to coast is the one where Ivo Van Hove has come in looking for actors for a 10-year global project.”

But in a catastrophe, even the best actors can crack. “In Look Look, John Arthur, who was playing one of the audience members, had to say: ‘I don’t know! £32.50 for this!’ And the line would float out across the stalls to an audience that actually had paid £32.50 – which was then West End top whack – for this. You have never heard such a terrible silence. And late in the run, there were a couple of nights when the silence was so cold that John started laughing.”

Whereas Broadway plays can close on the first night after poor reviews, British actors must carry on until the end of the scheduled run in subsidised venues, or through the two-week notice period of closure that West End managements are required to give. This requires support from the theatre team. There is a “duty of care” to those in a hated play, says Eyre, “and it is unforgivable not to support them. At the National, if it was my show, I’d go in to talk to the cast before the second night. And if it was someone else’s show that had destructive, poleaxing reviews, I’d go in to the dressing rooms with the director, and just exhort the actors not to take it personally or to heart.”

Before each performance of The Gorky Brigade, Moore remembers, the Royal Court’s then artistic director, Max Stafford-Clark, would appear at the dressing room doors and tell the actors: “Dunkirk spirit, eh, everyone?” There is also a particular atmosphere around a theatre with an unwanted project: “The stage door keeper gives you sympathetic looks. The box office people say: ‘Not that good I’m afraid.’”

Mark Strong, James Grout and Colin Stinton in Johnny on a Spot, directed by Richard Eyre.
‘There’s no way to disguise it, that was a catastrophe’ … Mark Strong, James Grout and Colin Stinton in Johnny on a Spot, directed by Richard Eyre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Simkins and his colleagues on Look Look were regularly visited by Frayn, producer Michael Codron and the director Mike Ockrent. “We never felt abandoned. These were guys who don’t desert their post. I know a lot of producers – and certainly directors – who you never see again if things turn out badly. I’m not going to name them, but actors remember and it cuts very deep.”

Although Eyre’s artistic directorship was during one of the National’s strongest decades, he scheduled one of its least successful productions: 1994’s Johnny on a Spot. “There’s no way of disguising that was a catastrophe,” he admits, “and it was my vanity that caused it.”

Colleagues had proposed reviving The Front Page, Charles MacArthur’s newspaper comedy written with Ben Hecht. Eyre, though, had vivid memories of Michael Blakemore’s 1972 production of the play and was “not willing to invite comparison with a pretty well definitive production. So I thought we’d do this other Charles MacArthur play, Johnny on a Spot. And we did a reading and everyone thought it was marvellous, so I wasn’t alone in my madness.” One review called it “a one-joke disaster”, adding the observation that the walls “rattle in sympathy” with the silent auditorium. The show played to only 28% capacity in the 1,150-seat Olivier auditorium across 43 dates.

Although disasters can provoke humour and even glee (smash flops are known to attract audiences who are drawn to gawp at the carnage like rubber-necking drivers on motorways) it should be remembered that livelihoods and even lives can be at stake. Eyre’s published diaries reveal that, during a run of unsuccessful shows that included the MacArthur, the artistic director was on prescription uppers and having suicidal thoughts. While critics must call what they see, there is a physical and mental toll from public failure.

If there were a formula for why shows fail, there would be no need for producers or reviewers. However, a study of the archives reveals some patterns. Huge commercial flops are predominantly musicals, perhaps because this is the dramatic form that walks the thinnest line between great art and ridiculous artifice. Strikingly, around two thirds of the National’s worst box office returns during 46 years at the South Bank are modern verse dramas, including Tony Harrison’s Square Rounds and Peter Oswald’s Fair Ladies at a Game of Poem Cards. Although Harrison has also had major NT successes – The Mysteries and The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus – there is some evidence that verse is off-putting. Harrison’s rhyming-coupleted The Prince’s Play, directed by Eyre in 1996, sold only 31% of its tickets.

The remit of the National, though, is to take risks. “I don’t think of The Prince’s Play at all as a failure,” Eyre says. “I was slightly shocked when you listed that. I see it as good work of the sort the National should be doing. With The Prince’s Play, I miscalculated the popularity. It was something like 50 shows in the Olivier. At 25 performances, it might have done 66% business.”

Gillian Barge and Angela Tunstall in Square Rounds
Riskiest of all … Square Rounds, a modern verse drama; the genre has the worst record at the National’s box office. Photograph: Donald Cooper/Alamy

Picking the wrong stage is also a common factor across flops. Almost all the National’s big disasters would have been minor disappointments in its smallest auditorium, the Dorfman (previously the Cottesloe). Manor stages small conversations at the front of the huge Lyttelton stage, with a towering set rising behind. Eyre hasn’t seen the play, but is intrigued to hear its geometry. “That’s interesting. You tend to have to find a way of reducing the Lyttleton stage and focusing audience attention on a much smaller part of the acreage. You have to find a way of compressing the space.”

Another frequent theatrical post-mortem finding is bad timing. The Gorky Brigade, Moore thinks, “was much better than critics gave it credit for. But, at that time, Thatcher had just been elected and culture felt like a war zone for left-wing ideas, and we were doing a play set in post-revolutionary Russia!” Similarly, two stark National failures – Philip Martin’s Thee and Me, which had half its performances cancelled, and Greenland, which was ridiculed by reviewers – approached the subject of climate change before it became fashionable.

In theatre, though, hope can soon follow despair, as Simkins found. “We got our closure notice for Look Look on a Monday. I was meeting a friend that night and Juliet Stevenson came down the stairs with her director from Burn This, which she was rehearsing. She said she was coming to see Look Look. I said, ‘Don’t bother, we’re closing’, and the director said, ‘Get this guy a script. We lost an actor tonight.’ Actors live on optimism – and that time it actually paid off. One moment, I was in the biggest flop in London and two weeks later I was on stage with John Malkovich in the success of the year.”

Stage frights: five infamous flops

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1966, Majestic, New York)
Broadway’s tradition of long preview periods creates a special small subset of productions that closed without actually opening. After watching the first preview, producer David Merrick cancelled all subsequent performances. “The announcement made Merrick a hero. Never before had a producer admitted at this stage that his show was a disaster,” notes Ken Mandlebaum in his entertaining Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops.

Warren Mitchell in Dutch Uncle.
‘Favourite flop’ … Warren Mitchell in Dutch Uncle. Photograph: McCarthy/Getty Images

Dutch Uncle (1967, Aldwych Theatre, London)
Playwright Simon Gray (1936-2008) was a connoisseur of his theatrical reverses across a series of diaries and memoirs and his “favourite flop” was this seedy bedsitter comedy. After a try-out run in Brighton, where Gray claimed to have witnessed a hotel receptionist warning guests to avoid the show, Dutch Uncle played to “groans of irritability, early and resonant departures, angry complaints at front of house” before closing. The Daily Mail critic argued for resuming the Victorian ritual of audiences booing bad plays.

Home Sweet Homer (Palace Theatre, New York, 1976)
One of the putrid sub-group of Broadway musicals that opened and closed with the same performance, this musical-comedy version of the classical Greek legend of Odysseus starred Yul Brynner, looking for a show to match his Broadway standard, The King and I. During a pre-New York tour, Brynner was suing the producers to get out of the show while his co-star, Joan Diener, finding that her name had accidentally been left off the theatre marquee, legally insisted the building was dressed in black, leading to fears that President Gerald Ford or Brynner had died.

Into the Night (Minskoff, New York, 1983)
Featuring at one point a high-kicking chorus line of an archbishop, priests and nuns, this show about the Shroud of Turin, a relic some Christians believe to be the burial shroud of Jesus, raised its $3m capital from churchgoers, but their charity was not shared by critics and it closed after six performances.

Natalie Wright in Bernadette.
Wing and a prayer … Natalie Wright in Bernadette. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Bernadette: The People’s Musical (Dominion, London, 1990)
Another set of “angels” (as theatre backers are known) among the faithful staked the cash for this musicalisation of claimed appearances of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes in France. Unusually for a stinker, every night of the month it lasted was sold out but audiences had come not to pray but prey on a show universally judged carrion.



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