This time it really is curtains: First-night rituals - the flowers, the flounces, the tears and the catch-phrases - are well-known. But what happens on the last night? Christine Eccles puts her ear to the dressing-room door

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It's said that the late John Dexter, an exacting and formidable director, jetted in from New York for the last night of his production of Pygmalion in the West End, changed into a costume of rags and joined the cast onstage, much to the amusement of the leading lady, Diana Rigg.

This is the kind of legend that swirls around Dexter, but it's also the sort of story you might associate with last nights. 'Oh yes, a director has got to be there on a last night,' says Sir Peter Hall, although for the final performance of his recent hit, She Stoops to Conquer, at the Queen's Theatre he confined himself to a discreet appearance backstage. After all, end- of-term high jinks are frowned upon in the theatre. 'They're professional people,' says Neil Bennett tartly, the company manager of the cast of Jane Eyre, which closed last Saturday. 'Nothing,' he repeats, 'nothing untoward happened on our last night . . .'

While first nights rocket by in a flurry of activity - cards and kisses, parties and prezzies - last nights tend to steal away without a backward glance. Flowers and farewell speeches, although common on the Continent, are not quite British. A modest extra bow marked the end of Jane Eyre. Celebrations were muted. 'We had a few quiet drinks front of house,' said Neil Bennett. 'It was sad.' Bottles of champagne circulated the denuded dressing rooms, but the cast left before midnight.

Even for a long-running show, a feeling of anti-climax persists, even one of failure. No one wants to talk about the closing. 'What's in it for us?' asks a cautious press officer for the Royal National Theatre. 'Where were you at the start of the run?' accuses a disgruntled director on the fringe. 'For the cast, a last night might mean something,' says Stephen Rebbeck, the production manager at the National's Lyttelton Theatre. 'But the crew here are constantly churning out plays, so for us it's a matter of, off with the old and on with the new.'

Nevertheless, Rebbeck anticipated well in advance that the closure of the recent Machinal would prove an unusually emotional occasion. The play fell victim to the National's schedule whereby programming decisions have to be taken three months in advance. Fiona Shaw, its star, headed a long list of people disgruntled that the play had to come off at all. 'The actors didn't feel like they'd played it out,' says its director, Stephen Daldry. Matters are rather different in the West End, where market forces dictated that Jane Eyre had exhausted its audience potential. 'We had hoped to last through the summer,' says Bennett, 'but the box-office was dull so we had to come off.'

Last nights are often a final chance for everyone to get their act together. 'Technically, Machinal was so complex that something always went wrong,' says the stage manager John Caulfield, 'but on the last night everything came together.' The fringe director Marianne Elliott, who recently worked at Islington's Old Red Lion, similarly prayed that a problematic moment at the end of the first half of The Good Times Will Come would finally resolve itself, which it did. This was of no benefit to fledgling writer Stewart Harcourt because he couldn't even get a ticket in the tiny 60-seater auditorium.

Full houses are a characteristic of a last night. 'It was packed for the first time,' said Harcourt ruefully, after counting the cost of a gamble that did not pay off. At the National, the queue for Machinal returns snaked round the foyer, the last chance to see Shaw in her award-winning role proving the big event of the season.

But seats were available at the Queen's Theatre for the last night of She Stoops to Conquer. Many considered the real last night took place a fortnight earlier at the end of David Essex's contract. Backstage, Thomas Arne's music flooded the auditorium for the very last time and the company manager, Kevin Grant, stood by in the wings ready to snip the wired artefacts (pheasants, antlers, hunting horns) from the set. Souvenir hunting was not encouraged. Instead, everything was bubble-wrapped and transferred to two of Paul Matthew's 40ft lorries, which, with the permission of Westminster Council, parked throughout the night in Wardour Street before taking the set to Bill Kenwright's south-coast stores.

On the fringe where a get-out is a nightmare of logistics, Marianne Elliott considered herself fortunate to strike a deal with the junk shop next door who agreed to take the flats and all the non-hired furniture off her hands, gratis. The No-Parking restrictions of Islington's Red Routes, the pub's opening hours and the theatre's manager insistence on a pounds 450 deposit against vacant possession by noon, conspire in the shopkeeper's favour.

Prohibitive overtime rates make the romance of the all night get-out a thing of the past at the National. The 12 stage crew, five lighting operators, two sound technicians and six wardrobe staff reported for work at 9am the next day when Machinal's acclaimed high-tech, all-steel set became an eight and a half ton bargain- buy for scrap-metal merchants, Cartridge Mill.

The rest of the larger stuff was unceremoniously dumped, though Stephen Rebbeck would have preferred it if schools and colleges had had the time, and the transport, to scavenge what they could.

Smaller stuff can be more easily recycled - the desks and chairs currently appear in the Olivier theatre, repainted for Johnny on a Spot - and the National's warehouse in Brixton stores the rest until the next annual sale culls the relentlessly accumulating clutter.

The show might close, but the show still has to go on.

(Photograph omitted)