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Mark Shenton: What’s the etiquette if a theatre critic falls asleep?

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Earlier this week, Fiona Mountford, theatre critic for the Evening Standard, raised the question: “I am so tired of seeing some male critics asleep in the stalls. I have never seen a female critic asleep while she’s reviewing, so why does this imbalance continue?”

But this is not a gender issue: I have seen female critics nodding off. Rather, it’s an occupational hazard. And with the Edinburgh Fringe now upon us, incidences of critical shut-eye are likely to increase, as critics – like everyone else at the festival – see too much, and have too many late nights and early mornings, with shows available to review at any time of the day. The Traverse day, for example, starts with plays from 10am, with last shows starting at 10pm. Other venues start even earlier and end even later.

Critics being found asleep on the job is nothing new

Critics being found asleep on the job is nothing new. There have been persistent and consistent offenders for as long as I’ve been covering the field: I can think of at least four critics – two now dead, two now retired from daily critical writing – who I used to see dozing at most shows they reviewed. At one particularly memorable press night, I had to shake one offender, sitting right in front of me, awake. His loud snoring was disrupting the final quiet moments of the play.

Another, still writing, almost wears it as a badge of pride: when the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts has found himself dropping off, he has mentioned it in his reviews, because it is, in a sense, part of his critical narrative: the show bored him so much it sent him to sleep.

I’m not going to be ‘holier than thou’: yes, it has happened to me, too. The auditorium can be too hot or the lighting too dark, so it can occur without warning or intention.

If this paralysing state occurs for more than a minute or two, I make arrangements to see a show again before I pass judgement – or simply avoid reviewing the show formally. The actors have often spent four to six weeks or longer rehearsing the show, so our full attention for two to three hours is the least they deserve.

But I’m also keenly aware nowadays that just as I’m watching a show, some people are evidently watching me. I recently – slightly weirdly – had an actor in a touring musical challenge me in the foyer afterwards that he was hurt that he’d not seen me applauding. I was surprised, not least because I was sitting in the fourth row of the dress circle and therefore I didn’t think he could have seen me.

It’s true that I didn’t join the standing ovation (surely something that is not obligatory, but earned), but I did applaud and I always do. It’s a mark of respect to the actors, regardless of what you think of the show.

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