When the news came in late yesterday that, just a fortnight after opening, Show Boat had posted West End closing notices, I was both shocked and not the least bit surprised.
To be clear, Daniel Evans’ Sheffield Crucible production isn’t shuttering immediately at the New London Theatre, where it opened on Monday 25 April, following previews from 9 April. You still have another 15 weeks to see this 1927 Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II classic before its final bow on 27 August – so what the hell are you waiting for?
But this revised last performance date – and let’s hope it’s not brought forward any sooner – cuts the originally planned limited season more than five months short. (The production had been scheduled to run until 7 January 2017 – after which School of Rock is tipped to take over the New London).
So, while it’s in no danger of breaking speed-of-closure records (remember The Man in the Iron Mask, anyone?), to close after a four-month run, and to announce that closure just a fortnight after opening, is a major disappointment. Especially so after the kind of reviews Show Boat garnered – a second set of five-star raves to add to the initial praise heaped upon the production when it first opened in Sheffield last year.
Here’s why I wasn’t surprised by the news: I didn’t attend opening night. Big West End openings can give you a false view. It’s someone’s job to ensure there are no empty seats on an opening night. And, critics aside (potentially, though not in the case of this show), the invited audience – people involved in the show plus agents, family, friends and a smattering of celebrity guests – are guaranteed to receive the show warmly. Standing ovations are de rigueur.
At the New London, two nights after, when I attended Show Boat, there were no celebrities, but there were plenty of empty seats. For whatever reason, and in spite of the press plaudits, already the show was struggling to fill its 1000-seater home.
Show Boat’s closure announcement comes a week after another recent regional transfer, the four-time Olivier-nominated Mrs Henderson Presents, posted notices at the Noel Coward Theatre. By the time Mrs Henderson finishes on 18 June, it too will have run for just four months in the West End. Technically, the latter isn’t closing prematurely as its initial booking period ended on 18 June, but I’m sure producers had hoped it would be able to extend. And in my mind, it deserved to.
What might have made a difference to the fortunes of these two shows? In the case of Mrs Henderson: stronger reviews (remember that stinker in the Standard), less nudity, an Olivier win? In the case of Show Boat, bigger-name stars, a smaller theatre with more passing footfall (and fewer confusing, conference centre style entrances and exits – the New London can be a challenge), timing (opening just before a Bank Holiday weekend could affect coverage)?
I personally love both of these productions. It’s frustrating when shows you rate don’t catch fire with audiences when you know they’re so much better than many of the hits that run and run. So, for my part, let me end just by strongly recommending that you see both before it’s too late.
Mrs Henderson Presents runs at the Noel Coward Theatre until 18 June. Show Boat is at the New London Theatre until 27 August 2016.