Have West End theatre audiences sunk to a new low?
Attending the final Friday evening performance of Doctor Faustus starring Kit Harington at the Duke of York’s Theatre, my heart sank. Further down my row in the royal circle, after the interval, a couple saw nothing wrong in producing from their bag a box of McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets and a large side of fries. At the interval, they had popped out and purchased these to consume through the second half.
My night at Doctor Faustus will rate as possibly the worst West End audience I have ever encountered.
Munching certainly seemed to be the order of the day. The couple to my left ate their way through a large tub of popcorn during Act I, while the couple on my right chomped through a packet of crisps. It was like listening to eating in Dolby Stereo, and sadly at the expense of being able to properly hear the lines being spoken on stage. At the interval I asked both couples if they had brought their food in with them, and it emerged they had bought it at the theatre’s concession stand.
I understand that theatres rely on the additional income earned from the sale of concessions, but for Ambassador Theatre Group (operator of the Duke of York’s Theatre) to think selling noisy snacks in its theatres is a good idea is beyond me.
While the royal circle chomped its way through the performance, elsewhere was some of the most blatant use of mobile phones to record video and take pictures I have witnessed. The ushers tried their best to stop it, but in the end just gave up.
What amazed me most was this audience, many of them Game of Thrones fans, could see nothing wrong in talking, eating and taking pictures throughout the show – or complaining when asked to stop.
Recently, I had seen Maria Aberg’s production of Doctor Faustus at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre. It was played straight through in an intense 90 minutes. But Jamie Lloyd’s West End production was the first time I had ever known Doctor Faustus to have so many laughs in it, with the audience often vocally commenting as if watching TV at home. There was also the necessary inclusion of an interval for bar and ice cream sales – here was a Friday night commercial audience out for entertainment in the West End.
Lloyd was not dumbing down the play, but my night at his production showed how today some West End audiences have changed, especially when attending a popular TV star-led revival. To satisfy this market, there’s often an urge to make serious drama deliberately broader, or even bawdy. It also reflects a growing divide between commercially created classical dramas and those in the subsidised theatres. Lloyd has become a master in his ability to make these plays sit with a West End audience, many of them first-time theatregoers who are drawn to classical theatre or new writing because of his star casting.
Nonetheless, I walked away from the Duke of York’s Theatre despairing for those of us who want to go to the theatre to watch and listen, but are seemingly no longer being afforded that opportunity, while the respect being shown towards the performers on stage seems to be at a low ebb.
In the US, one solution at a regional theatre in Chicago where I recently attended was to bring an ensemble member of the company out on stage before the start of the show to warmly welcome the audience and ask them not to take photographs. Interestingly, it seemed to work. Perhaps that connection with the audience by the actor out of character reminded them that the experience they were about to watch was live. And it’s a leveller, building a mutual respect far more effectively than a pre-show tannoy announcement.
Lloyd’s production of Doctor Faustus had a large, new, young audience. It will be interesting to see if they keep attending. If they do, it is vital to introduce them to a model of conduct that does not interfere with fellow theatregoers’ enjoyment. But the first responsibility of theatres should be to restrict the snacks they choose to sell.
If all else fails, then perhaps the solution is to transfer Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker  from the Barbican’s Pit to a West End venue. The Japanese show, which has been playing as part of the London International Festival of Theatre , treats its poncho-wearing audience to 45 minutes of water and other gunk dumped on them in their seats by a crazed 25-strong cast, all performed to a pulsating soundtrack that includes a trash mash-up of Bui-doi from Miss Saigon. The audience is warmly encouraged to take photos but also warned they do so at their own risk. “The show accepts no responsibility for water damage to phones and cameras.”
Perhaps it’s more a case of the actors’ revenge.