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SOS: Let’s Talk About Theatre Audiences Misbehaving

Going to the theatre – particularly jukebox musicals – in 2023 seems to sum up an entire nation tormented by its class prejudices, insecurities, self-loathing, and entitlement.

Indeed, last week, Edinburgh Playhouse director Colin Marr warned abuse towards his front-of-house staff was unacceptable and said that he was “disgusted and angry” with dreadful behaviour aimed at his team in recent weeks.

In a statement posted online, he said: “This is becoming far too regular an occurrence – not just in our theatre but in venues across the UK. There is a very small minority of people who come to our theatre and choose to sing, dance, and talk throughout the show in a manner that disturbs others.”

Eye poppingly, a 51-year-old man and 54-year-old woman were arrested and charged in connection with an alleged brawl during the performance of Jersey Boys.

Jersey Boys

A witness told the Daily Record: “Staff asked him to calm down but because he was drunk he took offence and started throwing punches. It took about four ushers to restrain him and then another fight broke out in the stalls.”

Oh, what a night!

Furthermore, The King’s Theatre in Glasgow issued a similar appeal on social media during the recent run of The Bodyguard, urging audiences not to sing along during shows.

This prompted my suggestion for jukebox audiences to be breathalysed. The replies in that thread are beyond grim. Smoking in the upper circle at Pretty Woman, a teenager throwing up on her friend at The Cher Show and a family sharing a pizza at Moulin Rouge!

Glasgow statement

Maddest of the lot, though, inevitably came from a poor soul at & Juliet whose skull was used to steady the person behind her, who’d left mid-show for a toilet break, I’m guessing. 

So, have audiences simply forgotten how to behave?

Alas, last year, Deadline’s Baz Bamigboye reported seeing an audience member light up a joint at Get Up, Stand Up!, the Bob Marley jukebox musical. “We were standing outside the bar and the security guards raced past us. I said ‘What’s going on?’ and they said ‘A guy’s lit up a spliff in the stalls bar.’ We could actually smell something and it wasn’t a scented candle.”

And having endured weeks of pain in the a**e punters in The Drifter’s Girl Beverley Knight tweeted: “If your intention is to come to the theatre, get rat-arsed, make a scene, disrupt the show … My advice is stay your ass at home.”

Certainly, though, research indicates that post-pandemic restrictions easing there has been a spike violent behaviour and a “reversed maturity” which has caused personalities to revert to that of a challenging toddler. Go figure.

In a sane world nobody should have to police anybody else in the theatre. Like so much these days the pleasures of the vast majority are being compromised by the thoughtlessness of the drunken minority. 

Edinburgh Playhouse

In any case, I was stunned to see bouncers in the stalls at Bat Out Of Hell – another cost to producers – in an attempt to tackle increasingly drunken audiences who misbehave during weekend performances on the UK tour.

Elsewhere, SOLT/UK Theatre are floating a ‘respect campaign’ and recently said that it was looking into the scale of the problem and described audience yobbishness as a “growing issue – that we don’t fully understand the scale of yet”.

It goes almost without saying then, moneymaking ventures like ATG’s At-Seat service providing Yorkshire crisps, Sweet Chilli Pretzels, and bottles of champagne directly to your seat pre-show and during the interval. This has a lot to do with the hellish noise and lack of consideration on display. 

Trouble is, it’s show-business and “bums on seats” that count, obviously. Ticket prices are now completely unregulated and have surged 20% from pre-pandemic levels, but that doesn’t mean people can do as they please. 

In recent times, it seems Scotland and the West End are not the only place resembling feeding time at the zoo. In a – now deleted Playbill article – the key takeaway was that since pandemic lockdowns, live Broadway audiences have got more wild, hostile and disgusting, too. 

In it, a Broadway front of house manager explains: “It’s been horrible, no two ways about it… I cannot overstate how much it changed things. A bartender at a pub has the ability to cut someone off when they’re getting too drunk; they have bouncers to back them up. Our bartenders don’t have the ability to cut someone off, because we’re told to sell as many souvenir cups as we can. I’m sure higher-ups are making money hand over fist, but we’re stuck dealing with unruly drunks almost every week.”

Audience cheer for the actors at the Richard Rodgers theatre towards the end of the first return performance of Hamilton, as Broadway shows re-open

All this got me thinking: is it time to give persistently antisocial audiences a 12-month ban? Maybe.

Often theatre is all about being in the moment — in a public space — don’t forget that everyone has their own moments!

In the meantime, here’s my theatregoing checklist: Arrive 20 minutes early. Phone off. Stay quiet (if you are inclined). Don’t fight – overreacting to drunks is also antisocial. No crisps. No ice. Stop rattling your jewellery. Stay awake. Enjoy the show.

In Elizabethan times audiences clapped and shouted whenever they felt like it. Sometimes they threw fruit. 

My, how far we’ve come . . .