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First night pile-up in Essex

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The only way is Essex for a lot of the time on television these days, so it's great to have an authentic Essex play in the theatre at last, and David Eldridge's In Basildon at the Royal Court will mean a great deal to anyone hailing from that much maligned county.

In some ways, In Basildon is a classic "reading of the will" play but its real concerns lie in coming to grips with the history of East Enders who moved along the new railway line from  Liverpool Street into Ilford, Romford, Gidea Park (as they got a bit posher) and then, as with the characters in this play, further out to the "new world" plotlands of Basildon and Laindon.

It was a full house in Sloane Square last night, with a full compliment (sic) of critics and a goodly array of Court alumni, including Nicholas Wright, Caryl Churchill, designer Ultz (aka David Fisher), Stephen Jeffreys, director James Macdonald, April de Angelis, Roy Williams and Tamsin Greig.
And I'm always intrigued by the shadow team of critics, if you like, the guys herded in by Tom Sutcliffe for Saturday Review on BBC Radio 4, or Mark Lawson for his daily Front Row on the same channel, or Kirsty Wark for the BBC 2 critics on Friday night. Then of course there is the Culture Show, Sky Arts, various magazines and the proliferating online outlets: you never know who may be reviewing for what.

So, for instance, seated behind me last night was novelist Tim Lott and I could only speculate as to where I might eventually see, read or hear his views. Unless, by chance, he'd just come along to see the play because he wanted to anyway. If I see his fellow novelist Deborah Moggach - usually whooping it up with Susannah Clapp and Georgina Brown - I know I can hear her with Tom on Saturday Review.

And if I see academics John Carey and Germaine Greer I know to expect some serious talking on the Friday night BBC2 slot (though Carey is a regular on Saturday Review, too).

How all these people, and their producers and editors, are accommodated by our hard-pressed PR teams is a source of wonder and mystery to me. Presumably people make last minute changes, and double bookings, or even sometimes forget to turn up.

Which is why the current situation of confusion over openings is so dangerous. I'm told by Jackie Mason's team that the Guardian and The Times bought their own tickets last week to see Mason, ahead of the official opening next Monday.

The Zach Braff play, All New People, which opens at the Duke of York's next Tuesday, has a media night tomorrow, and I've received conflicting confirmation of my tickets at both events from the same PR company.

Hay Fever at the Noel Coward opens tonight, but there's an embargo on reviews till Monday. And I'm hoping to squeeze into a last preview of the the opening production of the Young Writers Festival at the Royal Court on Saturday night, otherwise I won't be able to get there at all... and what about Joely Richardson in The Lady from the Sea at the Rose, Kingston, on Tuesday night?

It's hell out there, I tell you, and I think it's high time SOLT - the Society of London Theatre and its new president, Julian Bird - did something about it. First off, they should ensure that West End theatre owners insist to new, or even visiting, managements - like those behind Jackie Mason and Zach Braff - that they conform to regular practice vis a vis our system of press invitations.

And second, I think all managements should ditch once and for all this New York idea of a series of press previews, or media nights, or gala functions in advance of the official opening. The date of a show's opening should be fixed and immutable.

Why? Because newspapers are now posting their critics' reviews online even before they appear in print. Critical reaction is instantaneous, and it's much better for everyone, not least a no doubt increasingly confused public, that the process of information  dissemination in reviews is properly co-ordinated.

The opposite view, of course, would be that none of this matters: because the internet has so liberated critics and commentators from any sense of a distant deadline, let's all just get on with it and give our opinions whenever we like and as they occur to us.

That way chaos lies, I reckon. And the death of criticism, at least in the popular media. And of course theatre artists are entitled to their controlled preview period which some of us try and invade, but always with permission, when the going gets rough. As it just did.


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