David Lister: The Week in Arts

Who needs critics when you've got Kylie?
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The Independent Online

This week Sadler's Wells in London was able to announce a box-office record. Its samba spectacular, Brasil Brasileiro, smashed records for the amount of tickets sold in one day. The show sold 2,253 tickets on Friday 4 August, clocking up more than £55,000 in sales.

That is a little odd. The show is no doubt very fine, but the Brazilian company is far from a household name in the UK; also the show did not sell out in advance. The record-breaking day came a few days after the opening night.

It could be that the show received good reviews. But I am sceptical of the power of dance critics to wield such an influence on the box office. No, I suspect the real reason why the box office went bananas was the presence of a happy, smiling audience member on the opening night - Kylie Minogue.

A picture of Kylie whooping it up in the stalls, and a quote about how much she enjoyed the show, was all over the papers for the next couple of days. And, presto, the box office takes off. Kylie did not just pop in because she happened to be passing through Islington that evening. She was strategically invited by the astute Sadler's Wells management, which also decided to relax the rule about no photographs in the auditorium.

Strategic invites for opening nights are a more crucial part of getting publicity for a new show and improving box-office takings than ever before. There have long been celebs at first-night parties, and indeed in the audience, but now the invites are becoming more niche. Kylie is known as a good mover; her concerts are well choreographed, and if she enjoys herself at a dance show then fans of hers might be tempted to take it on trust that the show is good.

It was a supremely good niche invite by Sadler's Wells. But it was leaving nothing to chance. Pleased as it would be to attract the Kylie generation into the venue, it could hardly ignore the generation above, or even three above, so that older dance enthusiast Bruce Forsyth was also on the guest list. (Sir Ian McKellen was too, but I can't quite get my head around the strategy there).

Brucie is quite busy these days on the first-night circuit. He was on the guest list for the opening night of the new cast of Guys and Dolls in the West End a few days later. That list was niche with a twist, including a touch of song and dance (Bonnie Langford), a touch of serious actor (Art Malik) as this was originally a Donmar production, someone who sort of combines TV, musicals and gossip-column appeal (Martine McCutcheon), and finally a box-office saver: if all else fails, she'll get a picture in the papers because she'll say and wear something outrageous. Fortunately, Grace Jones was in town.

The art of the first-night guest list is no doubt studied in marketing classes. The publicity that it can achieve is worth more than a good notice from a critic. The guest list requires study, too, as it mirrors acting careers. Just as glamorous actresses find the parts dry up as they get older, so I have noticed that once familiar faces at first nights seem to be there less often these days. Anneka Rice was a first-night fixture for many years, but makes less frequent appearances now. Perhaps, as with Bruce Forsyth, a prime-time TV hosting role will plunge her back into the guest-list limelight.

Meanwhile, I was surprised that Kylie, Bruce Forsyth or even Martine McCutcheon were not at this week's opening of the Henry VI all-day trilogy in Stratford-upon-Avon. It lasted only 10 hours. What happened to their passion for first nights?

We'll meet again ...

When I raised at least one eyebrow last week at Madonna charging £160 for a concert ticket, I should have guessed that we had seen nothing yet. It now emerges that Barbra Streisand is charging the equivalent of £400 for tickets for her forthcoming farewell tour in America. But what is even more interesting is a report that some Streisand fans are considering suing, as this is in fact her second farewell tour. Imagine how many times Frank Sinatra might have been taken to court if someone had been as litigious then. Perhaps it was fear of court action that caused The Eagles on their tour of Britain this summer to call the concerts Farewell Tour I.

But I think the potential plaintiffs in the Streisand case may have a point. When someone publicises a farewell tour, you are prepared to pay a high price simply because you believe the artist will never perform again. If the artist is back a few years later, then maybe it's not unreasonable to ask for some of the money back.

* The National Theatre certainly likes to keep its audiences on their toes. On entering there this week I went to the gents' lavatories, which are a few paces from the entrance to the building. At least, they have been a few paces from the entrance to the building for the entire 30 years that the National Theatre has been on the South Bank. But things don't stand still at the National. After all this time, the powers that be have decided to turn the gents' into a ladies'.

I sauntered in absent-mindedly and was met with a volley of abuse. I take my hat off to the National. It knows how to get a reaction out of theatregoers. Change the gender designation of the lavatories after 30 years without warning and see how both sexes react to the inevitable intrusions. This is street theatre at its most cutting edge.