At the theatre last Saturday night, the drama was stirring, the action non-stop and the singing uneven – and that was just the audience.
Up on stage, the cast of Les Mis seemed not to notice the comings and goings in row M of the stalls, where one young woman, so affected by something but probably not the performance, made more entrances and exits than Jean Valjean.
Nor did they appear to mind the punters’ participation during the rousing choruses. Actors in the West End must have grown accustomed to this kind of feedback, given that anti-social behaviour is apparently a regular feature of stage shows.
But it is the lowly paid ushers and front of house teams, rather than the performers, who bear the brunt of unruly audiences, and 45% of theatre staff are now considering leaving their jobs, according to a survey last week.
The research, by the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union (Bectu), found that staff had to break up fights, and some had been subjected to violent assaults and sexual harassment.
Of the 1,500 people who took part in the survey, 90% had witnessed “bad audience behaviour”, with 70% saying it had got worse since theatres reopened after Covid.
Incidents where the police had to be called are hopefully scarce, but regular theatre goers will have come to expect at least low-level antics in the aisles.
However, opinion is divided over what constitutes anti-social behaviour during live shows; a lack of decorum to some is all part of the night’s entertainment to others.
There are those, such as Guardian theatre critic Arifa Akbar, who think complaints verge on snobbery. Eating in the auditorium, in particular, ignites passions disproportionately, says Akbar.
“I wonder if the consternation about snacks is about the noise itself or the kind of people who eat popcorn while watching the Ring cycle?” she wrote after such an outrage occurred at the ENO’s Rhinegold.
Snacking at the opera is not commonplace in my experience, unless you count sweets and bottled water, which are both deemed acceptable, if only to curb the coughing.
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But Philippa Childs, head of Bectu, said their survey demonstrated that bad behaviour is evident across all forms of performing arts, including opera and ballet.
I’ve yet to witness singalongs at the opera, or brawling – except on stage, of course, but there are other discourtesies, usually involving mobile phones (or hearing aids) ringing and illicit photography.
(At the Harold Pinter theatre, stickers to cover up phone cameras are being handed out to stop people taking mobile images of a naked James Norton, currently starring in A Little Life.)
Among the many explanations and excuses for audience disruption, the common denominator is usually booze, with Bectu saying drunkenness was a recurring problem.
Perhaps that’s why the more rarefied the atmosphere, the less likely it is that alcohol will be permitted beyond the bar. This is not to protect the plush upholstery, but out of respect for the artists, whose top Cs and concerto cadenzas cannot compete with too rowdy a crowd.
The greatly amplified singers in a musical probably wouldn’t be disturbed to the same extent by the raised voices in the stalls, and may not even hear them.
Anyway, a ban is not on the cards. Drink sales are crucial to the survival of live arts in these straitened times, and the majority of people appear able to combine consumption with concentration.
Maybe it’s the cost of tickets that also encourages uncouth conduct, though the jury is out over whether it’s the cheap deals to blame for letting in louts, or because, as the Times theatre critic Clive Davis argues, “people who pay ridiculous sums to see a West End production feel entitled to do what they like”.
As theatres can’t police their clientele, and ushers can’t be everywhere at once, responsibility for etiquette rests to a degree with the collective.
Peer pressure can work wonders – from controlling inappropriate clapping to hushing persistent chatterers – so long as it is commensurate with the content. Mamma Mia! does not demand the same silent reverence as La bohème.
The presence of a conductor, especially when seen, as in orchestral concerts, is even better. A true maestro can shame a timid latecomer with a twist of his neck and impose stillness on an entire hall with the flick of his baton.
The bottom line, though, is that if the arts are to broaden their appeal, they must be accessible to all. And if that means some audiences, like some productions, will be less appealing than others, it’s a price worth paying. The show must go on.
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