Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington has labelled the journalistic code of silence around theatre previews as “absurd” as two newspapers defied convention to report from the first public performance of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Protocol dictates critics are invited to a press night performance that typically takes place after the show has been played to the public a handful of times. Reviews are considered to be embargoed until after the official opening night.
Billington, who has reviewed plays for The Guardian since 1971, writes that the previews culture was imported from New York and first developed as a grace period to allow touring productions a chance to iron out any technical creases ahead of that all-important London opening.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a play with two distinct parts shown on different nights to the same audience, declared a seven-week preview period with the press night due on 30 July.
In a comment piece after the Daily Mirror ran a full review of the show and the Daily Telegraph wrote a colour piece revealing details from the first preview on Tuesday, Billington said: “As operated at present, the whole preview system is outdated, absurd and works against the public interest.”
But Paddy Smith, online editor at The Stage, told Press Gazette that breaking the embargo was “bad form”.
He said: “We wouldn’t break an embargo unless we thought there was a very good reason to. It’s no different from having a product review under embargo.
“We are all competing in the same environment now. We are all aware that when people go in and do this they are doing it to gain an unfair advantage in [online] search benefit. It’s just foul play.
“I think with a two-month preview period there’s the argument that that’s a bit difficult to stomach but it’s a major production and if the producers feel they need that long to get it right then that’s their call.
“I think from a producer’s perspective the preview period is their chance to fine tune the show and to have a licence to put it in front of an audience and then make changes based on how the show goes.
“In the case of Harry Potter we have just got a news story today that the live owls that were in the production that was reviewed in the first preview are now being dropped from the production.”
This defiance of established etiquette comes a year after the Daily Mail and The Times broke protocol and published their reviews of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, at the Barbican, ahead of the official opening night.
The Shakespeare production had declared three weeks of previews, which Billington described as a “pitch of absurdity”, before inviting in the critics.
The Times’ Kate Maltby came under fire from some theatre industry insiders for breaching the embargo with her, mostly negative, review. She said at the time: “The Times is, as ever, in at the action early.”
In both instances, the shows have garnered considerable publicity and excitement among fans ahead of their opening.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is showing at the Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, and is the eighth story in the Harry Potter series.