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Short Shorts 35: Audiences and actors fight back

I seem to have unwittingly ignited a welcome fight back by theatregoers and actors alike, tired of having performances disrupted by bad behaviour. Just the other day, a colleague posted on his Facebook account, “Hope never to be seated next to Craig Revel Horwood again. At last night’s Top Hat he offered a near constant commentary on the show from the overture onwards that was clearly audible four seats away - I know because I moved for the second half to try to get away from it…” Another journalist promptly replied, “You should have ‘done a Mark Shenton’.”

And on Wednesday night, Emily Tierney, who plays Glinda in The Wizard of Oz, tweeted, “Almost did a flying Glinda style Patti LuPone at the man in the front row who’s texting constantly! So distracting!” She then added, “Shame @ShentonStage isn’t in to give this joker a few lessons in theatre etiquette!!”

It’s everywhere, clearly: the West End Whingers even found it at the National when they saw Detroit, reporting, “Detroit ran at 1 hour 50 minutes without an interval so there was no chance to call an usher and stop the woman in the third row who was texting throughout the play. It’s pretty dismal the National staff or someone seated near her didn’t seem to do anything about it. Phil felt inspired to take up Mark Shenton’s cudgels but couldn’t locate her after the show. His mistake was searching for someone who looked like Bianca Jagger.”


One of the buzzwords that flies around a lot in theatrical circles these days is immersive theatre, a phenomenon in which audiences are pitched into the middle of the action to become part of it. But it occurred to me while watching the new touring production of Starlight Express earlier this week at Wimbledon Theatre that the original Trevor Nunn production, designed by John Napier, got there first, all the way back in 1984, and in one of the West End’s biggest theatres, too, the Apollo Victoria.

I don’t think anyone who saw it will ever forget the gigantic train set of a design that sent race tracks right around the theatre and even up to the front of the dress circle, on which the actors skated around in competitive heats. Of course, one of the problems was that too often the race would be invisible to the audience as it happened in other parts of the theatre to where they were sitting; so the design incorporated a live video relay of the races, too.

The new touring production, of course, can’t build race tracks around each theatre it visits; so the races are instead pre-recorded in 3D, for which we are issued with 3D glasses.


Unsuccessful shows are often rewritten and re-launched during their runs in an attempt to turn their fortunes around, in every sense; both Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Martin Guerre and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies, to name two, were temporarily shut during their West End runs to incorporate new changes to them and re-open to the press. But Starlight Express broke new ground in other ways: few hit shows have undergone more extensive revisions over the years than it has in an attempt to keep it fresh and up-to-date.

Nine years into its original run at the Apollo Victoria, Andrew Lloyd Webber reworked it, and as he puts it in a programme note for the new tour, “the new music was dedicated to my son Alastair” — and ran a further nine years. Now, for that tour, Alastair himself is credited with writing a new song, “I Do” for Pearl and Rusty, replacing the original’s “Only You.”


Earlier this week, I pointed out the desperation of one World Stages London production Babel in having to cite the comments of random members of the public in its quotes ad in The Guardian; now another World Stages show, Three Kingdoms, running at the Lyric Hammersmith till tomorrow, has quoted from twitter feeds.

At least the two people they’ve selected @MattTrueman and @DanRebellato are fully identifiable from their names, and both have some form as print critics, bloggers and published writers: Matt reviews for Time Out and his own blog, and Dan is an academic and blogger (whose blog review of the Royal Court’s Love Love Love I recently quoted from, too). But doesn’t the fact that the theatre find it necessary to draw quotes from beyond the normal newspaper pool indicate that those reviews might be less than flattering?


One of the questions I’m most often asked is how do the star ratings that are attached to reviews work, and what’s the basis on which they are awarded? The truth is that there is no universal standard; we each have to create our our indexes to apply them against.

We typically have five stars to play with — Time Out once briefly introduced the notion of a sixth star, but soon abandoned it. However, in his weekly restaurant column for the Daily Telegraph, Matthew Norman works with ten; and if it allows more nuance, it also means that the top accolade of a full house of ten out of ten is very sparingly applied.

So my quote of the week comes from last weekend’s column in which he reviewed Queans restaurant in Leamington Spa), and explained just how difficult the decision was - but why he was finally compelled to give it his highest score: “Never have I been so wracked over a score, struggling to decide if it would be insane to rank Queans alongside the magnificent Cambio de Tercio and Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner, recently unveiled as the world’s ninth best restaurant, with only my third ever maximum on this page. Since the mark is intended more than anything to reflect the pleasure a meal gave and the urge to return it induced, my conclusion was that it would be crazy to give it anything less.”


And finally, a quick reminder/plug for the season of interviews with leading figures of British theatre I’m hosting at Soho Theatre, These Are A Few of My Favourite Songs, in which Simon Russell Beale (this coming Sunday, May 20), Jeremy Sams (May 27), Howard Goodall (June 17) and Kerry Ellis (July 8), talk about some of the songs that mean a lot to them, a few of which are then performed live by guest singers Leanne Jones (May 20) and Emma Williams (May 27 and June 17), with Kerry of course singing her own choices on July 8. For full details and to book, visit Soho Theatre’s website.

9 Comments

Two quick things re: that ad for Three Kingdoms. Though they attributed the quotations to Dan and my Twitter feeds, they were actually taken from our respective blogs. I think it’s probably a matter of shorthand more than anything.

The interesting thing, however, is that the ad could have plucked some pretty decent quotations out of the national reviews. ‘Undeniably arresting’ - The Telegraph; ‘Stunning theatricality’ - Evening Standard. If they’d wanted to play a bit fast and loose (without breaking the law), they could have taken the ‘visionary’ from the Standard and ‘brilliantly executed’ from the FT’s sub-header.

It begins to look like more of a conscious choice than the Babel ad, where the hand was entirely forced.

Glad that people are taking a stand against bad behaviour in theatres. On walking back after a show one night two people on pavement next to us were moaning about how people infront of them at their show had talked/sung throughout show. I (politely)butted into their conversation and said, you should have told them to "shut up", adding that I always challenge poor behaviour and once challenged people soon stop.

I do wish theatres would "police" people using phones etc more. Best theatre for this is Royal Opera House in my experience where the ushers do "tell people off" for using their phones.

However I have to say I can only count the number of times I've had to challenge anyone on one hand so it's not too bad, but I can sense people feel we're at the cusp of a slippery slope and we don't want it to be a regular occurance. A blanket ban on camera's mobile devices is best way I think and for theatres to enforce it by ejecting offenders.

On the thorny subject of star ratings- The Public Reviews is one of the few publications that actually lists the criteria for each of their star ratings on their website (and frequently challenges reviewers to revise their rating if words and stars don't match this criteria).

We also also half star increments, so actually end up with an 11 point scale (including the rarely used thankfully 0 star rating) - allowing we hope for a more precise categorisation.

http://www.thepublicreviews.com/about-us/

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Prompted by the topic of Three Kingdoms reviews and responses, I think there are two broad camps worthy of attention here. The first is those established critics (print, online and broadcast) who are especially attuned to such theatre, including Dan Rebellato and Matt Trueman, who are well equipped to intelligently analyse the production and to clearly communicate their responses. The second is open-minded word of mouth (by which I mean personal acquaintances, not unknown bloggers) who can tell us, individually, what they noticed and what it did to them.

The reviews and responses which are of little worth are by those established reviewers who are demonstrably averse and unreceptive. It's like sending a tone deaf critic to review a musical.

I agree with Matt Trueman that the ad was aimed at people who would be particularly interested in the views of these two quoted writers and would be most likely to appreciate the production. Quotes such as ‘Undeniably arresting’ - The Telegraph or ‘Stunning theatricality’ - Evening Standard would be useless in attracting this specific audience.

Expect "Doing a Shenton" to be included in the 2013 version of Chambers and the OED!

I went to see Phantom of the Opera at her majesty’s in the west end. I was not impressed that people in the audience were texting and in one case playing games on their mobile while the performance is going on. Also some of the people in the audience were rattling sweet papers, or rattle, crunch, crunch, crunch, as they eat crisps. A couple just two chairs away from me were eating crisps, wrapped sweets, so that the paper rattled as they un-wrapped the sweet and drinking from a bottle making loud burps and slurps causing people to turn round to look at them and in between their loud whispers of “have you got a caramel one?” another remark “pass me the bottle of coca cola” or “I would love a toffee” or “have you got salt and vinegar flavour crisps?” They seemed so engrossed eating that they did not appear to notice the musical been performed live. Even music of the night suffered the noise, not just from the couple near me but all over the place, I could not understand why these people came if all they want to do is eat crisps and sweets throughout the performance. I spoke to an usher in the interval and she got the manager to speak with me. I was told that there was nothing they could do about the noise and regarding the couple near me the staff cannot do anything or say anything about it. So when the man and woman sat down for the second half and opened a bag of crisps and unwrapped a sweet just as the conductor took his place and the overture started I told them if they did not stop making noise then they would find the crisps, sweets, etc in a place of their anatomy they never knew existed but would hurt. Also if they want to eat while watching the musical then they should do so from the comfort of their own home watching it on you tube or on a DVD or the cinema if it is being shown, so as not to disturb other people in the audience who would like to watch the performance and hear the singing rather than the sound of them eating crisps and opening sweets. Hearing me say this, the four rows of people in front of me turned round and acknowledged the remarks and some applauded. The man and woman did not do a single rattle, or crunch, or rustle or ask for a toffee, or a caramel and they left before the bows, curtseys and applause at the end of the show. This experience has put me off going to the theatre as people are so rude that they should inflict their bad manners and noise during a show and ruining it for the rest of the audience and the performers If it is off putting to the public then is must surely distract the performers. Why pay £50+ for a ticket if all you are doing is text, play games, take phone calls, or snack.

Well done Mark for raising thegrowing issue of lack of theatre etiquette. Nothing is ruder or more disrespectful and distracting than having glowing screens and people texting during any type of show but particularly theatre.

Had a recent experience when someone who was fortunate enough to receive complimentary tickets was seated in the front row texting and talking to his partner throughout a premiere which resulted in many complaints from those seated around him!

Why should people need the obvious pointed out for them? Are they really that ignorant?

Jackie I have also had that experience as well, particularly when people take children to (adult) theatre shows. Theyget bored squirmy and just want to eat nosily - unfortunately as you pointed out this behaviour it extends to adults as well.

Well, we've just looked at some of the definitions provided on the Public Reviews website, and they seem to be suffering from a bad case of the false precision fallacy - how can the phrase 'I’d pay if it was on discount' for 2.5 stars, or 'Better than a night in front of the TV' for 3, be in any way more meaningful than simply allowing the numbers to speak for themselves. How many people decide to see something they think will be mediocre because it's cheap? You've still lost an evening or afternoon of your life. Why do you watch TV if you think that a night in front of it is a benchmark for something a bit rubbish? And as for 'You won't be disapointed' for four stars, is that a money-back guarantee? We don't use star ratings except when we are linking to other sites, but if we did we would really struggle to fit each one into one of the eleven templates provided by Public Reviews. There are myriad reasons why a show can disappoint or delight, and many permutations in between. Isn't that the real joy of writing and reading reviews?

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