Mark Shenton: When regular theatregoers feel unwelcome, is West End audience behaviour getting out of hand?
Jukebox musicals have become one of the most familiar and popular forms of musical theatre. Producers love them, because they have a ready-made, guaranteed audience: fans of the music who want to relive their fandom in a new arena. As the advertising strapline for Mamma Mia! cleverly puts it: “You already know you’re going to love it!”
These types of shows have enduring appeal and they do an impressive job of bringing in new audiences to the theatre.
But sometimes that’s also a problem. It’s not unique to jukebox musicals, but because they also have a tendency to create a party atmosphere, they can inspire particular forms of audience participation that transcends what “regular” theatregoers might deem acceptable.
A friend recently saw Motown the Musical at the Shaftesbury Theatre, and said to me afterwards: “God, people have zero class anymore. I went to the theatre tonight and so many people were talking around me that it made it impossible to hear. One ignorant fool took a phone call and then had an argument with his plus-one. I genuinely despair of people and their lack of manners when going to see live performances. I left at the interval.”
I’ve heard that my friend’s experience is by no means unusual and some theatres – especially those hosting jukebox shows – are now giving their staff conflict training in a bid to help defuse rows between audience members.
When I approached the Shaftesbury Theatre for comment, its chief executive James Williams declined to speak in detail about the issue, saying: “We all have a commitment to ensuring that our colleagues are aided in undertaking their duties through a multitude of means and each organisation will fine-tune these to suit their situation. We would expect our staff teams to deal with this in confidence and feel that to share with you would not be honouring our obligations to them.”
But theatres do want to keep their audiences happy and hopefully spending, too. Indeed, maybe this is part of the problem. Theatres keep all profits from their bars. This means that the venues may be partly to blame when it comes to drink-fuelled behaviour, which seems increasingly common at certain types of shows. During the Broadway run of Rock of Ages, bar service continued throughout the show – and in the West End, theatre owners such as Ambassador Theatre Group have begun to make drinks even easier to access, with at-seat ordering of drinks and snacks.
For Nica Burns, chief executive of Nimax Theatres, whose current portfolio of attractions includes Thriller Live (which has just celebrated its 10th anniversary at the Lyric), over-enthusiastic audiences are an occupational hazard – but not necessarily unwelcome.
“The music is sensational and people aren’t expecting a quiet night,” she says. “And people want to dance.” The challenge is to meet the competing expectations and interests of the audience. Staff are trained to deal with extraordinary situations.
“We do a lot of work to widen the theatre audience, which is a good thing – but not all newcomers have an understanding of the protocols and the best way to be in a theatre and an awareness of being considerate,” Burns adds.
But the problem is sometimes the frame of mind of the person making the complaint, as much as it is with the behaviour being complained about.
Some audience members, Burns says, arrive already stressed and angry, and bring their private problems into the public arena. “We’ve had audience members having family rows, and they’re more vocal about complaining: we’ve had people even complaining about others wearing perfume.”
We go to the theatre for a communal, shared experience. That means having to share public spaces, and sometimes public enthusiasm. But there’s a fine line between audience members enjoying themselves and impeding the enjoyment of others, as my friend’s experience shows. It’s a tricky matter that theatres are increasingly having to negotiate.
Mark Shenton is associate editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Wednesday and Friday at thestage.co.uk/columns/shenton