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Mark Shenton: The audience that goes wrong

Nicole Kidman in Photograph 51 at the Noel Coward Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson
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I love the theatre, so it stands to reason I like shows about the theatre. Over the years a whole bunch of backstage musicals, from A Chorus Line, Annie Get Your Gun and Kiss Me, Kate to The Drowsy Chaperone, The Producers, On the Twentieth Century and (currently on Broadway) Dames at Sea and Something Rotten!, have examined showbusiness from different angles (and not necessarily set in theatres: Anything Goes is a backstage musical aboard a boat, and On the Twentieth Century aboard a train).

Lawson asks why it seems London theatre has no business except showbusiness

Then there’s the absolutely ferocious portrait of a stage mother and the life of vaudeville and burlesque touring in Gypsy, departing London this weekend just as Sheridan Smith arrives in another true-life biographical backstage musical Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory (opening December 2). But it’s not just musicals: Mark Lawson recently noted in a feature in The Guardian just how many plays, too, are set backstage: joining the current behind-the-scenes run of Harlequinade (at the Garrick Theatre), Mr Foote’s Other Leg (set in the very theatre it is playing in, Theatre Royal Haymarket) and Farinelli and the King (Duke of York’s Theatre) in London soon will be Peter Pan Goes Wrong (Apollo Theatre, joining the same company’s The Play That Goes Wrong still at the Duchess Theatre to offer a backstage perspective of production mishaps), Red Velvet (also at the Garrick), Mrs Henderson Presents (coming to the Noel Coward Theatre) and The Entertainer (at the Old Vic).

As Lawson asks: “Why does it seem that, in London theatre at the moment, there is no business except showbusiness?” Of course theatre can offer views of the world far beyond a spectator’s immediate experience; I was recently shattered by a portrait of the current Liberian war struggles in Eclipsed, playing at the Public Theater, New York, and soon to be Broadway-bound. But theatre people write what they know about, so why not write about the theatre itself?

The egocentric world of theatre affords plenty of material, subjects and characters for full-blooded exhibition and exposition. But too often the show isn’t just taking place on stage but also in the audience. It has been a recurring theme of this column to talk about audience behaviour contributing to the show, in ways that are not always welcome.

Ann Treneman, the new chief critic of The Times, is negotiating her way through this novel new world and has started to collect nominations for her Worst Audience Awards. She recently reported that she has received more than 100 emails and letters railing against the slurpers, crisp-eaters and snorers. The latter category, sadly, even includes some of her new colleagues on the critical beat, though she’s too polite to mention it – I’ve more than once had to shake a colleague awake who has been snoring loudly during a quiet scene in a play.

Theatregoers, it seems, can definitely get overexcited. Treneman reports Shelagh Diplock’s experience of seeing Photograph 51 at the Noel Coward Theatre, “when, three seats away, a young woman and a middle-aged man started kissing. After about five minutes they were still going strong and I was finding it harder to concentrate on the play. Then she abruptly pulled back off him on to her seat and he pulled himself up to ‘rearrange himself’. It became apparent that something more than kissing had been going on. I am a person who will usually shush or turn and glare at people who talk or rustle crisp packets, but I admit I was speechless.”

Kidman’s previous London appearance was famously described as “pure theatrical Viagra”. Clearly, this couple was feeling the effects.

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