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Mark Shenton: Should theatre critics reference audience behaviour?

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Going to the theatre is primarily about the show you see in front of you; but it’s far from the entirety of the experience. Lots of things will influence your enjoyment, or not, of the production – some that the theatre will not be able to control (it’s not their fault if you arrive tired, hungry and late), but others that they will.

I’ve often used this column to rail against some of those inconveniences, whether it be theatres that actually sell their audiences popcorn (Ambassador Theatre Group, take a bow) or sweets in crinkly wrappers, or audiences that simply do not know how to behave.

But now the grievances are spilling into the reviews themselves. Writing for the Evening Standard, Fiona Mountford recently chronicled the state of the female toilets at the Ambassadors, where she saw the transfer of All or Nothing:

I do wonder when the West End will realise that it has, quite simply, tried audiences’ patience enough. To pay £65, plus £2.50 booking fee – or £82.50 if you’re feeling flush enough for premium prices – for a stalls seat in a dilapidated theatre for this grimly mediocre musical, then to spend the entire interval queuing for one of just five ladies’ loos in the building (and a mere two for the whole of the stalls), only to find that neither the taps nor the hand drier work properly: why would anyone be in a rush to repeat an experience of this sort?

And her review of Ruthless! at the Arts concluded with this observation, too: “What is unnecessarily ruthless, however, is the fact that the vast majority of stalls seats at this unlovely venue cost an eye-watering £61.”

These criticisms are taking up rather a lot of her short word count. But, then again, including the price of a ticket is a salient bit of information about a show, and I’m surprised more critics don’t draw attention to this.

I’m always keenly aware that people may spend hard-earned money on the shows that they are reading about. It’s part of my job to think about whether I can stand by the decision someone makes to do so based on what I’ve said. I’m also aware that critics typically see shows from the best seats in the house, and have to ask myself what it might feel like from the worst.

It might, in fact, be good practice if we included, alongside our star rating, a notification of the location where we sat, and how much that ticket would have cost – a suggestion recently made by West End Producer.

Dear West End Producer: ‘What’s your take on fringe theatre? Should actors get a profit share from the venue’s bar?

More problematic, though, are notes about audience behaviour. No two performances are alike, and just because someone is annoying you at one performance doesn’t mean the nuisance is there for all time. Some shows attract – or even demand – such renegade behaviour.

In a review of the new Jimmy Buffett jukebox musical Escape to Margaritaville that opened on Broadway last month, AM NY critic Matt Windman noted: “The most important thing to know about Escape to Margaritaville is that margaritas are indeed available for purchase and can be consumed throughout the show. You’ll need them…. The ability to consume alcohol during the show certainly helps to put one in a relaxed, less critical state of mind. But all things considered, you might be better off downing margaritas at a beach bar while listening to a Buffett album.”

In other words, you pretty much know what you’re going to get when you go to see this show, and the drinks are only there to enable it. In this case, the critics are only underlining it.

But what about critics who take fellow audience members to task directly in their reviews?

On Exeunt, Francesca Peschier ended her review of The Dog Beneath the Skin at Jermyn Street Theatre last month with a postscript that admonished the man sitting beside her for a sexist comment he made about its star Cressida Bonas.

On another occasion, also on Exeunt, Anna Winter referred to a fellow audience member at the Royal Opera House as a “tweedy prick” for comments he made about wanting an all-British ballet company.

Yet this is the same Exeunt that took @WestEndProducer to task for his jokey Theatre Prefects scheme, complaining that “the tone of many of the articles complaining about the perceived decline in audience behaviour is full of thinly veiled anti-working class prejudice”.

Even if you do think it’s appropriate to reference audience behaviour in a review, you can’t have one rule for one and another for another. If it’s okay for Winter and Peschier to – perhaps with good reason – call out the misbehaviour of fellow audience members, why shouldn’t others do the same?

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