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David Benedict: Ovation overdose makes it hard for exceptional shows to stand out

An audience giving a standing ovation – could they be the future of criticism? Photo: Christian Bertrand/Shutterstock If there’s a standing ovation at every performance, how can audiences show their appreciation for a truly exceptional show? Photo: Christian Bertrand/Shutterstock
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There are two types of silence in musical theatre. The first – and worst – I experienced at a performance (there weren’t many) of Murderous Instincts, billed as the world’s only salsa-comedy-murder-mystery, at London’s Savoy Theatre in 2004.

During a highly choreographed scene change the cast rushed on wearing waiting-staff uniforms to transform the previous scene’s set into a black and white dining room filled with tables topped with neatly designed place settings. As they slammed the last items into place, the beaming actors flung their arms wide to elicit applause, which never came. The silence was horrifyingly complete and I don’t think I’ve ever felt such pity for performers.

The second is the kind of silence that greeted the end of Saturday night’s concert performance at the Royal Festival Hall of Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. In the haunting penultimate scene, the emotionally wrecked anti-hero follows his regretful friend Balstrode’s order to take his trusty boat out to sea one last time and “sink her”. As Grimes, Stuart Skelton, barefoot and bereft, slid bleakly off the concert platform and walked up through the audience and out of sight. At that point, three eerie solo violins and the harp of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra ushered in the next morning on the beach with none of the townsfolk paying the absent, now drowned, man any attention. As the players finished whispering three final pizzicato chords, conductor Edward Gardner kept his arms aloft.

No one moved… not the orchestral players, the visible 180-strong chorus lined across the back of the hall, the soloists nor the 2,500 audience members in the packed auditorium. It was as if everyone was holding their breath, letting the preceding three-hour drama echo in their minds. I don’t know how long it lasted. Almost half a minute, perhaps, but it felt like forever until Gardner slowly dropped his arms. At which point the place erupted.

That preceding rapt silence was a rare thrill in a culture where audiences at live events increasingly cannot wait to burst into applause to over-signal their appreciation or, possibly, to indicate their relief at having shelled out wisely on a seriously expensive ticket. Equally annoying is the concert hall activity where all-too-knowing audience members kill the mood by rushing to applaud the second the music stops to show off to everyone that they know the piece well and aren’t they clever?

‘For West End shows, it’s as if there’s a cantilever system: as the curtain comes down, the audience comes up’

This is all allied to the seemingly obligatory standing ovation that now routinely accompanies pretty much everything placed before a musical theatre audience. For West End shows, it’s as if there’s a cantilever system: as the curtain comes down, the audience comes up. These days, a musical has to be downright terrible for this not to happen.

The predominance of the regulation ovation began with the manufactured musical megamix finale in which even the soggiest show could be made to feel good with a greatest-hits finale featuring an all-stops-out, jazz-hands, glitter-gun finish. That shamelessness seems to be on the wane – though & Juliet plays a similar game, minus the megamix, pretty much all night.

I’m not trying to be a killjoy. I don’t want to pour cold water on genuine enthusiasm and I’ve certainly leapt to my feet after a knockout performance of a song and stood and yelled with joy at a curtain call after someone, or an entire production, has blown me away. Since we’re on the subject, the peculiar refusal by a few of my peers on press nights even to applaud good work has always struck me as downright rude.

The person I sat next to at Dear Evan Hansen two days after press night was thrilled to find herself in the centre stalls on a last-minute ticket for “my favourite musical”, which she was seeing for the second time having seen it on Broadway with the original cast. (London’s Sam Tutty, she confided at the interval, was “a far better actor” than Broadway’s Ben Platt.) So I wasn’t surprised when, the second the show ended, she leapt to her feet.

Dear Evan Hansen at Noel Coward Theatre, London – review round-up

But the near-monotonous regularity of it all must be odd for performers. If there’s a standing ovation at every performance, how can they tell if they’ve been part of an exceptional night?

That’s what made the ovation that followed the silence at Saturday’s one-off Peter Grimes so thrilling. The 250-plus performers weren’t expecting a classical concert hall audience to go bananas. Seeing our response reflected in their faces only deepened the collective joy.

Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict

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