In the theatre, the typical contract between the actors and the audience has been that the actors perform the play, then the audience show their appreciation with a round of polite applause. In opera houses, they sometimes disconcertingly boo, too (particularly when the creative team take their bows); but the days, at least, of rounds of rotten fruit being lobbed onto the stage are long gone. But nowadays audiences are increasingly expected to follow the Broadway model of showing their unconditional love and approval by rising out of their seats and giving the show a standing ovation.
Some pop musicals programme this into the show itself, by making the finale a dance-a-long, “megamix” spectacle. So you have no choice but to stand, since the rest of the audience already is, if you want to see the remainder of the show.
In Guardian blog last year, Michael Billington (who deserves a standing ovation of his own today, by the way: it is his 70th birthday) deplored the spread of the tendency to plays like The Female of the Species that had just opened in the West End at the time he was writing, though it’s interesting to note that despite that apparent first night endorsement, it came off early.
He pointed out that “It even happened in Chichester the other day at the conclusion of Ronald Harwood’s two plays, Collaboration and Taking Sides; though, given the nature of Chichester, it would be fair to say spectators struggled rather than sprang to their feet.”
Michael suggests that the phenomenon is “a filthy American habit that I think should be discouraged”; and it’s true that you hardly ever see a show on Broadway without one taking place. There, he suggests it is partly proof of the audience validating their own vast investment in the ticket price, but also making them feel part of the show, too.
“But why are we suddenly doing it here?”, Michael asks. One answer, of course, is the night that we typically attend: unlike on Broadway, where critics go to a range of specified previews amongst mostly “regular” paying audiences (though they may be papered, of course, to bulk them up), here we go to first nights, which are inevitably rarefied nights, packed with investors and other vested interests intent on proving that their even bigger investments than the ticket price are justified.
But critics don’t typically join in. Though there’s an early scramble out of their seats, especially amongst the handful of four or five critics who may still be filing overnight reviews that may see them standing up quickly, they are usually on the move, not rooted to the spot; but the rest of us sometimes find us in an uncomfortable limbo. I think it’s rude to leave before the curtain comes down if you don’t have to, and it’s only polite to at least applaud the actors for their effort, even if your subsequent review might suggest a withholding of some praise. Stay seated, though, and you may be the only ones who are still sitting down, thus inevitably drawing attention to yourself; but stand, and you are seen to be publicly endorsing what you’ve just seen. And you may be lying if your subsequent review doesn’t square with that.
Sometimes, however, it is entirely justified; and I’m more than happy to join the standing throng. Just last week I did so at Blood Brothers, and it turns out that the night before, when several of my colleagues also saw it, they did, too. As Fiona Mountford reported in the opening line of her review in the Evening Standard, “Never before have I seen a domino row of hardened critics rise to give a spontaneous standing ovation. Yet this is what they — we — did, along with a rapt and tearful audience, for the gloriously recast Blood Brothers.”
Then, of course, there’s the seated standing ovation: as I previously quoted here, Max Bialystock tells Ulla in The Producers after she auditions for them, “I want you to know, my dear, that even though we are sitting down, we are giving you a standing ovation.” According to the Media Monkey column in today’s Guardian, it seems that my colleague Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph has just offered another: “Monkey has just got over Charles Spencer’s review of Anna Friel in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, only to find the Daily Telegraph theatre critic has been at it again. Spencer, you’ll recall, coined the phrase ‘theatrical Viagra’ for Nicole Kidman’s performance in The Blue Room. The new object of his affection is Kelly Brook in the theatre version of Calendar Girls. ‘It’s true that Miss Brook seems to find it pretty tricky to walk and talk at the same time,’ wrote Spencer. ‘But my, what a delightful eyeful Kelly Brook is, shaking her great mane of golden hair like a proud lioness and covering her modesty with iced buns.’ Is that a theatre review in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?”