Sex, violence and singalongs: how London’s theatre crowds forgot how to behave
I had put out a call on Twitter asking for stories of bad behaviour among theatre audiences, expecting a trickle of replies, if any. Instead there was a torrent of tales from actors, theatregoers and front of house staff detailing verbal and physical abuse, drunkenness and sheer bad manners. And this, from musical theatre actor Jonathon Bentley: “A couple of years ago I was performing in Mamma Mia The Party and an audience member pulled down her knickers, in between two tables and...” I’ll spare you the details but it’s safe to say it’s not something you’d expect in any public forum let alone the hallowed confines of theatreland.
You might, snobbishly, write this off as outlier behaviours — something that happens at a participatory “entertainment” where booze flows and audience members may not know the “normal” rules of theatre etiquette. But my Twitter request was prompted by a report in The Stage that Ambassador Theatre Group — the UK’s largest, which owns several London theatres — was adjusting its marketing for musicals to remove phrases like “the best party in town” or “dancing in the aisles” in response to audience bad behaviour.
Colin Marr, director of the ATG-owned Edinburgh Playhouse, said that an usher had been punched after asking an audience member to stop singing along to a performance of Jersey Boys. Again, this could be discounted as a one-off. Except it isn’t. My timeline was full of tales of people singing along to Hamilton, Hairspray, Moulin Rouge and even Cabaret at the Kit-Kat Club.
Filming of musicals, from Phantom to Come from Away, has been commonplace for years. When I caught Wicked for the first time after lockdown, two young women next to me filmed, texted, talked on their phones, and wandered in and out throughout the show. Audience members and countless ushers tell me they’ve been threatened, struck, had drinks or ice cream containers thrown at them, and in one case been “grinded on” when remonstrating with people disrupting performances. The pressure on theatres to augment profits with bar takings is a problem. One theatregoer reports a lone punter getting loud after consuming two bottles of wine during a musical on the fringe.
And it’s not just musicals. Journalist Miriam Sallon witnessed a man joining in with the onstage dialogue during The Taming of The Shrew at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. He was escorted out but barged back in shouting “wine and cheese, that’s all you are!” at the audience. A man repeatedly yelled “he’s meant to be at sea!” during Life of Pi at Wyndham’s (and was removed shortly before the character actually went to sea). Another loudly claimed that Richard III at Alexandra Palace in 2019 was “not psychologically truthful”.
More recently, an angry man disrupted a performance of As You Like It at @sohoplace theatre — which featured deaf actors including Strictly star Rose Ayling-Ellis and had subtitle screens around the auditorium — shouting that it “discriminated against hearing people”. And to finally put paid to the idea that this is solely a class-related issue, we should remember that 12-year-old soprano Malakai M Bayoh was booed during a production of Alcina at the Royal Opera House in November.
It’s not just abuse and over-boisterous participation that breaks the social contract of a visit to the theatre. Actor and composer Leo Elso reports seeing a man watching porn on his phone during the interval of We Will Rock You at the Dominion when working there as an usher.
Alexa Morden, an actor, writer and producer who has also done her time as an usher, says that a couple were caught having sex in a room near the dress circle during one long-running musical. Front of house staff have had to clean diarrhoea off cubicle walls, and at one popular family show, remove a pair of soiled underpants from a lavatory stall. Theatregoers have reportedly brought food — including prawns, curry and a full picnic — into venues as varied as the National, Soho and the Park.
There is a theory that things have got worse since the pandemic, because audiences became de-socialised by lockdown. But these stories stretch back more than a decade, or in some cases further. “I think Covid is just an easy excuse,” says actress Lucy Eaton, who co-starred with David Tennant and Michael Sheen on the lockdown TV hit Staged, and who was onstage at the Park Theatre’s 90-seat auditorium in 2014 when punters unwrapped the aforementioned picnic. “There were some appallingly-behaved people before, just as there are now.”
Theatre critic Michael Billington, who began his career at The Times in 1965 and reviewed for the Guardian from 1971 to 2019, thinks the increasing prevalence of food and drink in auditoriums has induced people to “behave as they would at the cinema and eat, drink and chat regardless of the fact it’s a live performance”. He has a point. I am pretty sure that when I started writing about theatre in 1989, fringe theatres in pubs were the only venues that encouraged drinking during a show; and food was limited to the odd rustling sweet paper during West End matinées.
Billington also suggests, intriguingly, that rising ticket prices have encouraged rowdier engagement, particularly at curtain calls. “If you’ve paid more than £100 for a ticket you have to demonstrate that your investment was worthwhile. Audiences have now started to perform, rather than just watch and listen: at the end they hoot and holler.” He also reminds me that we shouldn’t idealise the past. At a production of Jolson the musical at the Victoria Palace in 1995 a couple famously started having sex in a box by the stage, and even the cast started drifting over to observe them.
Rising ticket prices have encouraged rowdier engagement, particularly at curtain calls
Dr Kirsty Sedgman of the University of Bristol, who specialises in audience research and cultural value, says that audience demographics have changed. “Since the turn of the millennium, we have seen an increase in widening participation and outreach initiatives that are designed to get a more representative range of audiences into theatre and to battle those claims that the arts are an elitist space,” she says. “And that is a very good thing.”
This was greeted, however, by increased usage in the term “theatre etiquette” and defensiveness among traditional (older, white, wealthier) audiences and in the media. I have come to believe — and Sedgman gives qualified agreement — that the ubiquity of mobile phones and the way social media has both accelerated and debased debate have broken the unspoken contract that existed in theatre. We have got used to recording every event and aggressively expressing every thought immediately.
And the pandemic did indeed change everything. “Theatre is a canary in the coal mine,” she says. “It has always been a space where big societal tensions come to a head first, and then spill out into every aspect of social life.”
During lockdown we got increasingly used to policing each other’s behaviour, from social distancing to mask wearing; to calling out bad behaviour and responding aggressively if we were the ones called out. We were also starved of “cultural effervescence — of opportunities to get together in public and to engage in and experience collective joy, sociable joy”. The aggression and lack of boundaries evident as people renegotiate what it means to go to a play or a concert is, Sedgman says, mirrored in confrontations in shops and on the streets. She writes in greater detail about all this in her new book, On Being Unreasonable.
During lockdown we were starved of opportunities to get together in public and to engage in and experience collective joy
What’s to be done, though? The theatre establishment isn’t saying. I contacted representatives of countless groups, managements and producers for this article, and all but one declined to talk, even off the record. The exception was Paul Taylor-Mills who said he welcomed exuberant audience responses at his production of Heathers: The Musical at The Other Palace, but notes that “we don’t encourage them to drink and they are more likely to have Slush Puppies: the average age of our audience, I would say, is about 15”.
Hannah Essex, co-chief executive of the Society of London Theatre, did give me a statement: “It is concerning to hear reports of poor behaviour taking place within theatres around the country. It is important to remember that these incidents are still thankfully rare, and the vast majority of the public play their part in creating a safe space for audiences, staff and performers alike to experience the joy that the arts have to offer. Unfortunately, this is a cross-sector issue. Many customer-facing industries are suffering similar incidents of abuse, whether that be retail, hospitality, or entertainment.
“This is a societal issue, with no easy fix. However, we are looking to develop a campaign which reminds theatregoers to be respectful of the staff, performers, and their fellow audience members, as well as providing further guidance to theatres as to how to deal with poor behaviour when it happens.”
In other words, there won’t be any change in audience behaviour until society as a whole learns to calm down and behave better. And while abuse and violence is never acceptable, it’s worth recalling how recent the idea of “theatre etiquette” really is. Audiences in Shakespeare’s day were hardly models of quiet, attentive decorum. The rivalry in the 1840s between two great Shakesperean actors, England’s William Charles Macready and the American Edwin Forrest, involved the latter’s fans throwing “half a dead sheep” at the former during one stage appearance, and culminated in the Astor Place Riot that left over 22 dead.
Beside which all else is a drop in the ocean.