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Wednesday 9 October 2019

Theatre etiquette

The play that goes wrong

You are stuck in a production that is bombing. Do you stay or exit stage left?

By Nicola Slawson

To leave or to remain? It has been a conundrum for many theatre-goers who find themselves stuck at a play that is either crashing or showing serious signs of longueurs. There are limited options if you decide to stay: the prospect of nodding off or fidgeting your way to the end. But if you leave a performance mid-way, are you sending out a hostile signal to the actors?

Based on a social-media straw poll, the response was mixed: many said they had walked in the past and didn’t regret the decision (“It was like gaining back an hour of my life,” said one) but not everyone agreed. Some were shocked at the suggestion and said they would never dream of exiting a show, simply out of courtesy for its producers.

We asked seven theatre-goers how they fend off their disappointment.


The One Who Walks Out: 
Alex Preston, Manchester 

“I’ve walked out of the theatre twice. The first time was Hamlet starring  Maxine Peake at the Royal Exchange in Manchester in 2014. If you live in Manchester, she is considered acting royalty. The tickets were about £45 and it was a much-lauded production.

Maxine Peake as the famous Prince of Denmark

I don’t want to be rude, but it just felt interminable. The fact that I don’t get on with Shakespeare probably didn’t help but my partner is an English teacher and she didn’t like it much either. By the interval, we knew we couldn’t bear to have to sit through the second half so all four of us, who had come together, left. I felt guilty as it was being filmed and I was worried the cameras would pick up our empty seats on the balcony’s front row. We didn’t regret it at all, though, because we then went to the pub and had a giggle.

The second time was this year and it was a production of Invisible Cities at the Manchester International Festival, for which the tickets were about £35 and it had also got great reviews. The dancing was fabulous, but the actors weren’t just saying the lines, they were booming them out like Brian Blessed. Again, we left at the interval. I just couldn’t bear any more of the acting.

Booming it out like Brian Blessed: ‘Invisible Cities’ at the Manchester International Festival

Compared to West End prices, the tickets weren’t as expensive, but it’s still a shame to have spent money on something we didn’t enjoy. You do feel like you’re wrenching yourself away from something and you don’t want to offend, but I haven’t regretted leaving.”


The One Who Stays:
Debbie Hargreaves, Tunbridge Wells

“When I lived in Chicago, I went to a local production of Harold Pinter’s Homecoming. My husband is a huge Pinter fan and while I do not like his plays much, we were newly married at the time and I was keen to humour him.

But the Americans evidently don’t get Pinter. There were long, ponderous silences which I could see were making them uncomfortable. The audience wasn’t large – about 40 or 50 people. It was a neighbourhood production so there were some in the audience who knew the actors. We had all been drinking amicably in the theatre bar beforehand.

As I said, Pinter is not my favourite playwright and my mind was wandering during the first half. But, at the interval, I realised the rest of the audience must have been feeling the same way as people started to drift off. Nevertheless, my husband was having a great time. He was homesick and here was a bit of England enacted before his eyes.

As we took our seats for the second half, I realised he really was the only person who had been enjoying it. The rest of the audience had gone and we were the only two left. I spent the next hour feeling so embarrassed and awkward for the cast who were now performing just for us. They soldiered bravely on and I’d like to say it got better. But it didn’t. It was not the best Pinter we have seen, but I’ve given up going now and James goes on his own.

I feel I can’t walk out as I’ve paid good money to go – it is expensive and I believe actors should be given the benefit of the doubt. Last week I went to a revival of The Permanent Way by David Hare – it’s about railway privatisation but now feels very dated and no longer relevant. I did consider leaving, but there was no interval and, anyway, my husband was enjoying himself.”


The Playwright:
David Edgar, Birmingham

“The first thing I would say is that there’s nothing like boredom in the theatre. The reason why theatre survives and why people are prepared to pay vast sums of money to go to see adaptations of films is the multiplier effect: surrounded by people sharing the same live experience, you laugh more loudly, sob more uncontrollably or get bored more extremely. The boredom is the price for the moments of exhilarating laughter or tears, which are of an intensity you get nowhere else.

Very early on I made a rule that I would never walk out of a show, with two exceptions: if it was in a foreign language and if it involved puppetry. This is partly because, in the 1980s, I went abroad a lot and watched some bowel-shrivellingly boring shows which involved both these elements: my view was, and remains that, if you’re watching another interminable puppet production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Romanian, walking out is legitimate.

“The boredom is the price for the moments of exhilarating laughter or tears,” says the playwright David Edgar

A reason to stay, even if the first part has not gone well, is that the second act might be dramatically better than the first. However, the Julius Caesar rule (in plays of two halves, the second half is almost never better than the first) makes this an uncertain bet. But I always stay on, not in hope that it will get better, but out of solidarity – the sense that it’s something you owe the profession. There’s a certain gracelessness about people walking out, especially in the quiet, emotionally charged moments of a play. Now, with my latest show, I’m the actor as well as the playwright and I feel even more that you owe the actors to eat the whole meal.”

David Edgar’s new show, Trying It On, is currently playing at Warwick Arts Centre and the Clapham Omnibus 


The Critic: 
Arifa Akbar, London 

“The body never lies, or so I’ve been told in the meditation classes I’ve attended in hope of becoming a calmer person. Sadly, I have never achieved calmness but what I have learned is that my body really does vote with its feet. I always know when I have disconnected from the drama on stage because I am suddenly aware of the uncomfortable seat, my old hip pain and an almost wishful sense of needing the loo. The wrist-twitching begins then as I fiddle with my Fitbit and realise how few steps I have walked. I also become aware of the heavy-breathing man to my left and the oppressive press of people impeding my path to the exit.

The bitter experience of sitting through Bitter Wheat

In some cases, it feels as if my feet are giving orders to my brain to march out, but of course there is no question of leaving because, as a newspaper critic, I must stay until the bitter end, in the line of duty. When the script is particularly bad, I cringe in sympathy with the actors. I did it earlier this summer, at David Mamet’s dismal #metoo satire Bitter Wheat, which featured John Malkovich as a sexual predator in a fat suit. I wasn’t the only one underwhelmed by it. When I returned from the interval, many of the seats in the auditorium had emptied.

I am at least grateful that I have something to do while a play nose-dives. Sentences float into my mind and I jot them down in my notepad, building my terrible thesis. But I also feel sadness in my certain knowledge that I will be writing a negative review. I mull over the star rating, reaching for the safety of a ‘three’ out of five, especially if it is a fringe production. But my body tells me otherwise and I know I will have to listen to its truth (Two stars).”


The Tortoise Member (and Olivier Awards panellist 2008–9):
Nicola Stanhope, London

“I have rarely left a play before the end and would always wait until the interval – hopefully there is one! I only leave if I have the feeling that there is nothing that could happen in the play or to its characters which I would care about if I stuck it out to the end. I left during the interval of Remember This by Stephen Poliakoff and Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country for exactly this reason.

The company gathers around the piano in ‘Girl from the North Country’

When I stay, I try not to look at my watch too often, wondering how only ten minutes could have passed when it feels so much longer. At these times, I would love to be the person who goes to sleep at a theatre, just to wile away half an hour. I feel a real inability just to let time pass so one way I have learned to get through it is to find a displacement activity for the mind. I watched Harriet Walter in a two-hander called Boa, which was only one-hour-40-minutes long but felt so much longer and was so excruciatingly bad that I began running through recipes in my mind. I visualised it all from scratch, from slicing up a courgette to cooking it. It helped to calm down my annoyance at being stuck at something that my brain wouldn’t connect with – a sort of meditation, I suppose.

Alternatively I have run through episodes of TV box sets that I have watched and loved over the years, such as the Buffy series – a guilty pleasure. It can be a good diverting brain exercise to see if I can remember who the main villains were series by series, for example. It’s simply about tuning your mind into something other and not getting wound up thinking of the price of the ticket, which can be significant these days, or the cost of some of the big, splashy productions that end up being so bad. Money which might have kept a small fringe theatre in business for a year.”


The Actor: 
Madeleine Dunne, London

“There was one terrible show I acted in which I wouldn’t have blamed anyone for walking out on. It was fringe theatre which, quite often, can go one of two ways. I knew the script wasn’t great when I started and thought some of the writing was inappropriate. As rehearsals progressed, I realised that the calibre of some actors wasn’t high. For some, it was their first professional play so not everyone was on the same wavelength.

I was thinking about all of the people I would want to invite and whether I would actually invite them. I didn’t think they would walk out but it’s hard when friends and family feel like they have to say something was good when you know it wasn’t. When it came to the performance, I am pretty sure that some people didn’t come back after the interval.

Generally I’m more of the opinion that if you can stick it out, you should stick it out unless it is offending you or if you’re not very well. I think it is detrimental when you have full audiences coming in at the beginning and then you notice the empty seats. It’s hard when you’re trying to do your thing and it can affect the cast’s morale.”


The former Marketing Officer: 
Nicola Slawson, London

“Prior to changing careers, I used to work in the arts. My last job before making the switch was at a regional theatre in Shrewsbury where I was the marketing officer. If people left the theatre having not enjoyed themselves, it was always a worry because we relied so much on word of mouth. With tight margins, we needed to sell as many tickets as possible so it was always uncomfortable when we realised something wasn’t the best especially if we had paid a lot to bring it to the theatre.

I also used to be a steward and a box-office assistant for the same theatre. If people didn’t like something, they would complain to us on the box office as if it was our fault, which was also annoying, but of course we always had to be really diplomatic and polite despite our own feelings about whatever show was on. The experience was worse when I was stewarding as I could see when people had fallen asleep (quite common given the theatre’s main demographic of older theatre-goers). Sudden gaps in the audience were really noticeable, but I don’t think anyone actually walked out while actors were on stage while I was on duty. I don’t know how I would have handled that.

When a show wasn’t great, it did make me feel quite anxious and embarrassed, especially because there was quite a lot of backlash at the time to the amount the council had paid to build the theatre, which was brand new at the time I worked there. Any negativity would just play into the hands of those who hated the theatre anyway.”

Photographs: Getty Images, Jonathan Keenan, Tristram Kenton

Further reading

The Play That Goes Wrong is an acclaimed comedy by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields which premiered in 2012 and begins with a crew of hapless backstage staff mending a mantelpiece for the set. It won Best Comedy Award at the Laurence Olivier Awards 2015 and spawned another play which was a variation on the same theme, called Peter Pan Goes Wrong.

For insight in how to get it right, Michael Billington’s The 101 Greatest Plays is a survey of plays of the highest calibre, ranging from the Greeks to the present-day.

This anonymously written article by a theatre manager about etiquette is a fascinating insight into the issues he faces in managing a theatre in the modern age.

A funny guide to the dos and don’ts of being an audience member which delves into noisy snacks, using phones and even pleasuring one’s companion!

Nicola Slawson headshot

Nicola Slawson

A freelance journalist specialising in news and features for The Guardian, The Telegraph and HuffPost UK, among others. She is often found at Tortoise ThinkIns running the instagram account and is the campaigns manager for Press Pad, which aims to solve the problem of elitism in journalism.