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Is antisocial audience behaviour getting worse?

Mark Shenton’s night at Neville's Island was marred by antisocial audience behaviour. Photo: Johan Persson
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Okay, the man sitting in front of me at the Shaftesbury Theatre on Saturday afternoon couldn’t help being tall. But it was like having a pillar in front of me, and no ordinary pillar either. It was a pillar that kept moving. Even though I was virtually leaning into the aisle to see past this obstruction, a sudden tilt of his head would render even that view obstructed. So I moved to look through the newly created gap on the other side of his head. Until he moved his head again, and I had to follow suit.

I was in prime centre stalls seats on the aisle of row F for a press performance of Memphis, eight rows back in the stalls. But the problem at the Shaftesbury – and it’s not confined to this theatre alone – is that the seats are not staggered at all. They are directly behind each other. And there is only the gentlest of rakes to the floor. So basically we are all seated, one behind the other.

Thankfully, I spotted an empty seat a few rows ahead, and was able to move to it a few minutes into the show.

Later that day, I was at the Duke of York’s Theatre for an evening preview of Neville’s Island. This time the show’s publicists had seated me in the centre of the front row of the dress circle; obviously there would be no obstruction in front of me. But this time the interruptions came from behind.

[pullquote]I shushed them as politely as I could summon[/pullquote]

A mother and adult daughter repeatedly whispered to each other about the play. Then the daughter apparently needed an urgent visit to the toilet. The mother repeatedly discussed her needs to do so, until I shushed them, as politely as I could summon. That was when things turned sour. “How dare you shush us,” the mother said. “My daughter’s ill and needs to go the toilet.”

“Fine,” I said, “then she should go.”

“But she didn’t want to disrupt the rest of the row,” she replied.

But meanwhile it was apparently fine to disrupt everyone around them by their whispering, both about the toilet visit and the show before that.

When the interval arrived, the mother continued her fight with me – and apparently the toilet visit wasn’t sufficiently urgent for her daughter to immediately go now that it was possible to do so, since she joined in the fight instead.

[pullquote]When it comes to noisy sweets, the theatre is culpable[/pullquote]

Elsewhere in the dress circle, there was also the constant rustling of a bag of sweets. (The theatre, of course, is culpable in this – they sell the damn things.) A woman sitting near the offenders likewise got into a verbal fight with mother of the kids eating them in the interval. Then the mother went to the concession stand and bought some Pringles for the kids, too. At this point, the woman who had complained told me she was leaving. Her evening had been ruined.

My own evening was saved by speaking to the theatre manager and moving to some vacant seats in the stalls where, fortunately, the person sitting in front of me wasn’t excessively tall.

I’ve confronted badly behaved audiences before – once, notably, I confronted Bianca Jagger at a Barbican performance of a Philip Glass opera.

It may well be that Saturday nights are just not a night to go to theatre, as you are more likely to encounter people for whom theatrical etiquette is simply an unknown land. But the rules seem to be changing faster than I can keep up. And they’re not helped by theatres turning themselves into cinemas and offering all manner of refreshments to be consumed during the show.

Read more columns from Mark Shenton

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