David Lister: Why pay top price for a rehearsal?

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The Independent Online

Last Monday was to have been the world premiere of an American political play Complicit at the Old Vic. It was a major event in the theatrical calendar. The main attraction was Richard Dreyfuss, pictured; one-time Hollywood star of films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The artistic director of the Old Vic, Kevin Spacey, was directing.

But the critics were uninvited a couple of days before the official first night; the press night was put back until next Wednesday, and Richard Dreyfuss's uneasy relationship with the British stage continued. Last time he was here he didn't quite make it to the first night, sacked from The Producers during rehearsals.

Those who did go along to the Old Vic last Monday saw an unusual sight. Richard Dreyfuss on stage, almost unusual in itself, was wearing a earpiece through which his lines, or some of them, were being fed. No prizes for guessing why the press night was postponed, though a prize should be given to the language specialists in the Old Vic's publicity machine who stated that the production needed "more development time". That would be time for Mr Dreyfuss to develop his learning of the lines then.

The sight of the Dreyfuss earpiece has provoked bloggers to reminisce about famous cases of lines not quite learned. The actor and latterly comic writer Michael Simkins recalled the case of an actor in a weekly repertory season desperately whispering "What's the line?" into the wings, only to be met with the response, "What's the play?"

My personal favourite – and it really did happen – was in a production of Treasure Island in which one sailor fearfully warned another about Long John Silver but forgot to end his speech with the observation that "He only has one leg". The other actor, seeking only to help his comrade, provoked hysteria in the audience by asking him "And, er, how many legs does he have?"

You have to feel for Richard Dreyfuss, who with luck will have shed his earpiece by the new official world premiere first night next Wednesday. But beyond the jokes there is a serious point. As the critics have not yet been let in, these current performances are previews. That fact has been explicitly stated. The production is still in "development". Yet audiences are having to pay the full price for their tickets and subsidise this extended rehearsal time.

As so often happens with previews, the performance is not judged good enough to be ready for newspaper critics, but it is ready enough for punters to see it and to pay top prices for the privilege. They're strange things, these theatre previews. They don't seem to happen in other art forms. Opera singers don't feel the need for development time in preview performances.

But put actors on a stage and they need weeks to develop their performance before a first night – two months in the case of the production of Oliver! now in the West End. What is wrong and unethical is to charge audiences the full price. That long-forgotten phrase one used to see outside theatres, "half-price previews", made a lot of sense. Try out the show in front of audiences if you like, but allow them to pay half price. Paying the full whack to watch Richard Dreyfuss learn his lines is a close encounter of the expensive kind.

Judge for yourself

I am on the voting panel for the Brit awards this year. The nominations were announced this week, and I suddenly realise what a mixed blessing it is to be a "judge" in an arts contest. You can beam proprietorially for the acts you liked and championed, who have made it on to the shortlist.

Equally, you have to take the rap from your friends and colleagues for bands and artists whose records you wouldn't allow in the house. So, I am thinking of walking round with a sandwich board that declares on the front: "Radiohead, the Killers, Estelle and the Ting Tings – hey, that was me." And on the back it can say: "Girls Aloud, Leona Lewis, Alexandra Burke, Iron Maiden – nothing to do with me, honest." Next year I think I will decline the honour of being on the panel. It's not good for the street cred.

Ensnared by the Mortimer charm

Many people have their own stories about John Mortimer, the writer, wit, barrister and much more besides, who died last week. Mine still makes me gulp to think about it. I last ran into the Rumpole author at an awards lunch. I was leaving and saw Sir John outside, somewhat the worse for wear.

We chatted, and he asked if Sinead Cusack was still inside. I told him that the actress was there, sitting at the top table. "Will you go back and tell her that I love her?" he requested. I assumed this was a Rumpole-style joke, but he refused to let me pass and entreated, with tears in his eyes, that his declaration be conveyed to Ms Cusack.

I carried out his instruction, went back into the room and delivered the message, unsure who was the most embarrassed – myself, Ms Cusack or her husband, Jeremy Irons. When I left, I found Sir John still outside, chuckling mightily.