Just the other day I added another example to the seemingly endless list of aggravations of going to the theatre fellow audience members, when I wrote about a woman sitting in the row behind me at a West End first night last week whose metal jewellery clanged loudly every time she moved her arms (which was every few seconds, it seemed).
There are all sorts of behaviours that people get up to in the theatre that are entirely preventable, and sometimes inexcusable: last week, too, a woman spectator (who also happened to arrive late, I noticed) at the spellbindingly intense Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me at Southwark Playhouse seemed more intent, during part of the first act, to be watching over her mobile phone instead of the play.
Before the second act resumed, however, a production person was clearly despatched to make an announcement to the audience: mobiles should be turned off, not merely to silent, and not checked during the performance, not even for the time, as the glow was distracting.
But what about things people can do nothing about? I’ve previously highlighted the issue here of the family of an autistic child who were moved to sit behind a glass screen at the back of the stalls at a performance of Wicked, when it was thought that he was creating a disturbance, denied by his father. There are, I subsequently discovered, various schemes to offer what the Unicorn Theatre, one of the providers of them, called “an autism friendly environment with specialist performances.”
That’s one way for theatres to reach out and accommodate special needs. But what about other eventualities, like people who are tall, disrupting the enjoyment of those behind them? Robert Hurwitt, the theatre critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, was recently taken to task by a reader for complaining about it: “I take umbrage at your linking together people who are tall and happen to be seated in front of you with others whose behavior is impolite or annoying. What do you expect those of us who are tall to do? Should we forgo the theater, or always choose seats in the back row? Being tall is not a behavior we choose, and we should not be blamed for our stature.”
Hurwitt duly apologised, and pointed out that another reader had said, “It isn’t so much the tall person as the ‘seat swayer’ - the one continually shifting head and shoulders from side to side - who causes so much discomfort”. He then went on to write, “The problem isn’t the size of an audience member but the sightlines in the theatre.” This can be a matter of architecture but also of staging, as he points out. And I was struck just last week at the Donmar - which always has sightline issues anyway, especially for those sitting on the side flanks of the theatre — how even sitting in seats in the centre block of the third row I had problems. Much of the action in the first of the three plays that make up Making Noise Quietly took place on the stage floor level, and I had to keep being a seat swayer myself to actually see the actors.
These are all physical matters. But what can a theatre do about psychological preferences? Of course we all have different tastes, whether as critics or just spectators. But at least if you’re a member of the public, you will not, generally, book for a show that’s of a genre you don’t enjoy. Why pay money to have a bad time? But critics, it seems, are sometimes paid to do just that.
Last week a new production of Don’t Dress for Dinner opened on Broadway, a French farce that had once been a long running West End hit. Charles Isherwood ended his review in the New York Times by declaring a new condition he’d discovered about himself: “Allergies are mysterious things. They come from nowhere, and then sometimes they go. I’m not exactly sure when it developed, but I’ve come to realize I have a pretty serious allergy to farce. (Rare exceptions: Michael Frayn’s Noises Off and this season’s delectable One Man, Two Guvnors.) Emerging from Don’t Dress for Dinner after the last clandestine smooch had been snatched and the last bedroom door slammed, I found myself itchy with irritation, checking my skin for hives.”
Those sorts of conditions can be brought on by too much exposure to something. Last week Leap of Faith also opened on Broadway, a new musical based on the film of the same name, to mostly lethal reviews, but writing in the Philadelphia Enquirer, Howard Shapiro made an interesting observation: “People who see maybe two or three new Broadway shows a year — which is to say normal people, not necessarily critics who get to see everything — will like Leap of Faith for its playful energy, and because the formula will not be so well-worn for them.”
Yes, critics can spend too much time in the theatre, and maybe, as with shows like this, it can blunt our enjoyment of them. And going to the theatre can also bring on other ailments: today I undergo another bout of back surgery. I’m not going to blame the often terrible theatre seats I spend so many hours of my life sitting in — it’s a pre-existing genetic condition — but it certainly doesn’t help! I may, as a result, be missing in action for some of this week. But I will be back here as soon as I can.