Who is theatre’s greatest collaborator? Undoubtedly, it’s the audience. Without them the show is nothing. But do some audiences give better audience than others? John Osborne clearly thought so. At the end of The Entertainer, Archie Rice says: “You’ve been a great audience. Let me know when you’re working, and I’ll come and see you.”
Recently, I was in the unusual position of watching the same show – Tabitha Mortiboy’s The Amber Trap – three times in less than a week for a feature. I became acutely aware that, while the production changed from one performance to another, so did the audience – massively.
The group of strangers who came together in the theatre at the start of each show often began to take on a distinct character: the one that laughed a lot; the one that was more contained and listened carefully; the one that fidgeted.
Anyone who has done any teaching will tell you that a group of students quickly develops a particular dynamic, which is often determined by just a few people who influence the others. Actors often talk about the way they can feel that audience as if it’s an animal. Like all animals, some are more responsive than others.
An audience that is listening hard, on the beat and laughing at the jokes can make the difference between a good performance and a great performance. It’s as if the audience takes on a particular hue because of the behaviour of just a few. I once saw a Wilde revival at which the entire audience appeared to have developed a collective cough by the final act. It could have been considered an act of criticism just as savage as a one-star review in the Daily Telegraph.
Sometimes, when I’ve caught up with a well-reviewed show a few days after the press night, I have found myself astonished by the reviews and wondered what all the critics were on to justify all those four and five-star raves. But, maybe the answer is that it’s not just that the performance was better on press night, maybe the audience was better too.
I understand when artists dismiss a critic’s view of their work, but I despair if they won’t listen to the audience’s
By ‘better’, I mean more genuinely responsive. There is a world of difference between an audience that tries to ‘perform’ having a really great time – as often happens when friends and family are in – and an audience that is genuinely enjoying a show and is with it every step of the way.
But does where you sit and who you sit next to also affect your enjoyment of a show?
As I’ve written before when celebrating solo theatregoing, one reason I like going to the theatre alone is not being responsible for anyone else’s good night out. But it’s also because I will often pick up on my companion’s body language that indicates whether they are having a good time.
I once had a grim experience on a press night when a Strictly Come Dancing celebrity in the seat behind me was so eager to show his appreciation of the lead that he cheered her every move. He clearly thought he was being supportive. Perhaps someone had a quiet word with him at the interval – or issued a cease and desist order. Anyway, it did the trick.
Writing for The Stage, Matt Trueman recently suggested that one of the crises of criticism is too much consensus, the fear of stepping out of line that can lead to over-praise. But maybe simple body language leads to consensus. After seeing Half a Sixpence at Chichester in 2016, I was struck when reading the reviews that critics sitting on one side of the auditorium were considerably more enthusiastic than those of us sitting on the other.
More recently, at All My Sons at the Old Vic, I sat next to the Arts Desk’s Aleks Sierz and both our reviews were less positive than those of many other critics. Coincidence? We certainly didn’t discuss the production, and until I read his review I couldn’t have second-guessed his response and I doubt he mine – I always make a point of clapping enthusiastically whether I enjoyed a show or not because it is the least the actors deserve. Maybe we simply created our own unconscious micro-climate.
I understand when theatremakers dismiss a particular critic’s view of their work (mine included), but I despair when I hear artists refuse to listen to the audience’s response. I don’t often find myself in agreement with David Mamet, but I think he had a point when he wrote: “The audience (before it leaves the theatre and puts on – as do you or I – its wise, critical hat) is the only judge. If the audience members didn’t laugh, it wasn’t funny. If they didn’t gasp, it wasn’t surprising. If they did not sit forward in their seats, it is not suspenseful.”
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner