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Not all right on the night

In his research for a new book, The National Theatre Story, Daniel Rosenthal found that even star-studded shows don't go without a hitch. He recalls the mishaps that almost brought the curtain down on the likes of John Gielgud and Diana Rigg

Daniel Rosenthal
Thursday 12 December 2013 01:00 GMT

Stage managers are a phlegmatic breed and, if the house style of their nightly show reports at the National Theatre is anything to go by, their sense of humour is bone-dry.

Since 1963, NT actors have given tens of thousands of performances at the Old Vic and on the South Bank, but, with just one performance per run audio or video recorded for archive purposes, only a tiny fraction of these shows endure. For all the rest, the most tangible records are the reports typed up by the stage manager soon after curtain-down, and stored in the NT Archive.

These pro-forma, A4 sheets give basic information, including start and finish times for each act, length of interval, details of any absentees and who covered their roles. Sometimes a performance is momentarily brought to life by the section headed "Remarks" or, latterly, "Comments". Here, stage managers always hope to write "Full house. Clean show. Standing ovation", and, far more often than not, no problems are noted. But in live theatre it will never be all right every night…

Jumpers (Old Vic, 1972–73)

Stage manager: Jackie Harvey. Cast included Diana Rigg, and a mechanical prop tortoise

Wednesday 23 February 1972 "Fluff from Miss Rigg's gown caught in her throat early in Act 1 and remained until interval: very painful; affected her voice."

Tuesday 29 February 1972 "Tortoise head fell off during Act 1. This is the third time that this has happened. Please could the design be changed."

Saturday 24 March 1973 "An [unsecured loud] speaker attacked a prop man during the first scene change, resulting in water spilt over Secretary's desk and no carafe or (full) glass set in study. The latter were set one scene later. The former has now been secured with stage weights (the speaker, not the prop man)."

Macbeth (Old Vic, 1972)

Stage manager: Jackie Harvey

Saturday 18 November "The collapsible dummy in the second witches scene: more often than not the wig does not fall off: this appears to be a design problem rather than a handling one… is the removal of a broomstick the swiftest way to effect the collapse that we can think of? It is a beautiful dummy, of course, but is not quite 'hitting the spot', therefore does require further thought."

Plunder (Lyttelton, 1976)

Stage manager: John Rothenberg

Saturday 10 April "Towards the end of Act 1 there was a disturbance caused by a latecomer who wanted to get into the stalls but was stopped by a security guard. There was a slight tussle in which the gentleman fainted. He was taken, or rather carried, to the stage door where it was discovered that he was a diabetic who had eaten the wrong food. Hence the collapse. His friends finally took him away. But not before he threatened litigation."

Tuesday 27 April "[Curtain-up] held from front of house [for eight minutes], owing to the presence of HRH Princess Margaret on an informal visit. We were very close to getting a slow hand clap."

Weapons of Happiness (Lyttelton, 1976)

Stage manager: John Rothenberg

Wednesday 14 July "The cricket ball [was accidentally hit] into the front row of the stalls and was well fielded and returned by the woman in whose lap it landed. The champagne bottle took it unto itself to pop one scene too early. What you might call a premature ejaculation."

Julius Caesar (Olivier Theatre, 1977)

Stage manager: John Rothenberg. Cast included John Gielgud as Julius Caesar

Friday 1 April "Sir John off for his first entrance. Was sitting in his dressing room with the show relay [speaker] tuned into [Alan Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce in] the Lyttelton. A rather long, but not pregnant, pause whilst he was collected. The Company filled in the time chatting amongst themselves and listening to the Augurers chanting."

Illuminatus! (Cottesloe, 1977)

Stage manager: Terry Bird

Saturday 21 May "Four curtain calls, but some fooling about in Act 1: saxophonist played the Steptoe [theme] instead of tear-jerker; toy robot crossed the stage on the line: 'Martians'. This was stopped and those concerned spoken with. The replacement goat [is] very large, and took one or two actors off upstage during the black mass; no one injured."

Amadeus (Olivier Theatre, 1979–81)

Stage manager: John Rothenberg. Cast included Paul Scofield as Mozart's nemesis, Salieri

Saturday 3 May 1980 "Mr Scofield received a tumultuous round on his entrance for Act 2, which seemed to throw him a bit, but he soon rallied."

Saturday 17 May 1980 "The brakes went on the wheelchair and Mr Scofield nearly finished up in the stalls."

Way Upstream (Lyttelton, 1982–83)

Stage manager: Ernest Hall. Alan Ayckbourn's comedy, set on a riverboat which moved through a large, on-stage water tank, brought a series of mishaps unprecedented – and unrepeated – in the National's history. Cast included Jim Norton and Tony Haygarth

Friday 27 August 1982 "Boat movements erratic throughout because work on the [river] bank [earlier in the day] prevented a new boat operator… getting any technical rehearsal… Long interval – the bank once again jammed on its last move in Act 1…

Boat pivot problems… made it necessary to interrupt the performance twice in Act 2 by bringing in the iron [safety] curtain and replacing a slipped cable on [the winch] wheel…

There was a new loudspeaker in the boat and…the first music cue in Act 1 was so loud in the boat that neither actors nor operators could hear what was happening in the play and the speaker had to be turned off… The feeling of the company… was that they could not face the prospect of every having to live through such a traumatic performance again."

Monday 13 December "First performance without water [in the tank]… Because the boat rocks more easily without water, the gangplank was thrown off into the tank at the beginning of the play. Retrieved most ingeniously by Mr Norton. It all felt very odd!"

Wednesday 23 February 1983 "The water was back for this evening's performance, which was just as well because at least there was something for Mr Haygarth to fall into when he slipped off the boat during Act 1. He wasn't hurt, just wet, and the audience was appreciative!"

Tuesday 8 March 1983 "Unexpected sound effect: shrieking birds (part of the 'atmosphere' tape). They were taken out quite quickly, but for a moment the atmosphere was more Hitchcock than Ayckbourn."

Hamlet (Olivier, 1989)

Stage manager: Ernest Hall. Cast included Daniel Day-Lewis (Hamlet), Judi Dench (Gertrude) and Jeremy Northam (Laertes)

Thursday 1 June "Very loud talking (men's voices) heard onstage during Act 4, Scene 5… A stage technician mentioned that he had heard men in the bottom of the drum revolve sawing and shouting to each other and had told them to be quiet. At lights down (5.14pm) I was unable to contact anyone who could have told me who they were or what they were doing in the drum during a matinee. We do need to find out so that we can a) avoid a repetition and b) so that the four actors [including] Dame Judi…who suffered from this noise… receive the detailed explanation they deserve."

Thursday 5 September "On the Ghost's exit in Act 1, Scene 5, Mr Day-Lewis left the stage and told me that he could not continue the performance. An announcement was made and the audience invited to take an extra interval. The announcement only specified technical problems. After 32 minutes the performance resumed with Mr Northam as Hamlet. Mr Bedford played Osric and Mr Nicholas a Switzer. Mr Northam coped brilliantly (not an exaggeration) and received an outstanding reception from the audience."

Sunday in the Park with George (Lyttelton, 1990)

Stage manager: Alison Rankin. Cast included Philip Quast as George Seurat

Monday 11 June "The stage left charcoal tree came in several inches before it flew out during the bathing change, consequently it was swinging about violently and caught on the ceiling. Needless to say the actors were very frightened… The large scene changes were extremely noisy – no doubt due to the fact that everyone [on the crew] wanted to return to the England match being shown on TV. Mr Quast was most distressed."

The Madness of George III (Lyttelton 1991–92)

Stage manager: Courtney Bryant

Wednesday 19 February 1992 "When Mr Byrne removed Mr Villiers' Chancellor's wig he also removed the wig Mr Villiers wears underneath. This left Mr Villers with the said wig in his hand. He walked behind the curtain stage right to get rid of it and at this moment Mr Hammond turned to address him and found him gone. This threw Mr Hammond who lost track of his words and on Mr Villiers reappearing needed a prompt which was given him by Mr Villiers."

Skylight (Cottesloe, 1995)

Stage manager: Trish Montemuro. Cast included Michael Gambon as a recently widowed businessman and Lia Williams as his former mistress, a schoolteacher

Wednesday 3 May "[After curtain down] the company greeted Princess Margaret. She appeared to have enjoyed the performance very much and when Mr Gambon asked if she'd found it depressing, she said 'It was a bit like one's own life.'"

The History Boys (Lyttelton, 2004)

Stage manager: Trish Montemuro

Saturday 8 May (first preview) The company and crew all worked very hard and dedicatedly to get the play up and running. Huge thanks are due to the crews. The company were ready for an audience, and the laughs. It was a truly extraordinary evening and the curtain call could have gone on and on.

'The National Theatre Story' by Daniel Rosenthal is published by Oberon Books, in hardback and in ebook

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