Paul Allen, writer, theatre critic, and judge for this year’s Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize, describes the thrill of a first night – for both the writer and the audience.
Being in a big audience at the first performance of a new play is a bit like a mass blind date.
Everybody’s a bit anxious but hoping for a good time, preferably with a bit of a laugh and possibly with a lasting result.
There’s no other public event quite like it. Having a good time at a football match is only possible if some of the people there have a bad time – and I don’t mean the club owners who’ve just tried to put up ticket prices.
You can have a good time at a party but not everyone’s invited (and you can’t be sure there won’t be a fight or somebody’s mate won’t throw up in the toilets at the end of the evening).
On the first night in the theatre of course the throwing up in the toilets happens earlier, and it’s probably the writer. There’s this huge upside-down pyramid of people; an audience of hundreds at the top, a score or more of theatre workers from the admin staff to the folk who’ve found the props and built the set in the next layer down; the company of actors who are about to go out and do the thing; and the poor man or woman who started the whole process off by having what seemed like a bright idea at the time is at the very bottom, like Atlas supporting the world.
That’s how it can feel anyway. It could be the best night of his or her life or it could be the very worst. All down to how well (or otherwise) he or she has done. Talk about a blind date.
But there’s no better place to be when it works. Now that religion and politics rarely bring large numbers of people together in a rapturously shared experience, live performance is what’s left to bind us together en masse.
Liverpool’s provided a few of those key experiences for me but I’m thinking especially right now of the first night of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers. I was reviewing it but enjoying it too much to take any notes that I could read afterwards. I know people kept asking me if I thought the show would transfer to London and thinking yes, it probably would, but this was the least exciting thing about it.
I’d been caught up in the songs, the comedy and finally the tragedy of a great popular work which actually said more about the world I lived in than all the message-laden political drama of the time.
A great story, well told, shared in a packed house. And I think I was probably a little in love with Barbara Dickson.