The ultimate guide to theatre-going etiquette

Etiquette of the Opera - Arriving at the Opera House: Getty Images
Etiquette of the Opera - Arriving at the Opera House: Getty Images

My worst night at the theatre was also my worst performance as a theatre-goer.

The year was 1999 and I was attending a first-week run of Mamma Mia! I hated every schmaltzy second of the theatrical Dairylea on stage in front of me — and I wasn’t afraid to show it.

At the end, the Super Trouper lights turned on the audience, who all rose from their seats as one, singing and boogying along to ‘Dancing Queen’. Everyone, that is, except grinchy old moi (who wanted his Money, Money, Money back). Bad, bad theatre-goer.

Twenty years on, and more seasoned in the manners of theatre attendance, I now realise that I should have put aside my high minded, Mamet-loving snootiness and got involved. Theatre, at all levels — from Pinter to panto — should be like that; when you buy your ticket, you sign a tacitly collaborative, synergetic contract; an exchange of emotion and tension, joy and jeopardy, between audience and performer. In other words, the people in the dark in row F need to play their part just as well as the actors under the lights and on stage. Hit your mark and give it your all. Here’s how.

DO PUT YOUR PHONE AWAY

Let’s start simple. Don’t be that guy who snaps the curtain at the Royal Court and uploads it to Instagram in some sort of look-where-I-am brag. In fact, just switch your phone off altogether (you can call the babysitter or fire off a tweet during the interval). Everyone will appreciate it. During his run as a seedy American detective in Killer Joe at Trafalgar Studios last year, Orlando Bloom twice broke off his performance to call out someone in the audience he’d spotted using a screen device. ‘Put that f***ing iPad away now and I will wait!’ Impressively, Bloom managed to stay in American Southern Gothic character throughout his potty-mouthed rant.

DON’T DISCUSS THE PERFORMANCE WHILE STILL IN THE THEATRE

Musician and performer Joe Stilgoe, who dazzled as the party pianist in the Old Vic’s production of High Society in 2015, always employs a ‘hundred-yard rule’ after he’s seen a play. Especially on a first night. ‘That means you don’t discuss anything about the performance until you are well away from the theatre,’ says Stilgoe.

‘The theatre world is intimate. You never know who might be listening — actors, directors, parents of cast members all spill out of the show at the same time so, chances are, your loud and cruel take-down of the lead will be heard. Probably by the lead himself.’

DO PRE-ORDER DRINKS FOR THE INTERVAL

This quaint and old-fashioned tradition is all part of the ritualistic thrill of going to the theatre. You tell the barman how many G&Ts you’ll be needing at half-time, pay for them and take your seats. When the lights go up you file back into the bar to find the pre-ordered cocktails stacked on a shelf, identified by your till receipt. This kind of fun never gets old. And guess what? On the South Bank there’s even an app for that. Download the National Theatre Bars app and you can pre-order drinks from your phone. (Not during the show, obviously.)

DO IGNORE THE REVIEWS

So, you bought tickets for Martin McDonagh’s A Very Very Very Dark Matter at the Bridge Theatre, at great expense, and well in advance of the opening night. And then some poor reviews came out. Should you still go? Of course you should. Reviews are subjective. Sit down and judge for yourself.

DO EAT

But definitely nothing that smells or steams. Or crunches or rustles. Or spills over on to the person next to you. Recently, London’s Nimax Theatres introduced a ‘scrunch test’ on the noise-polluting food products it allows audiences to eat while watching a show.

Last year, all food was banned from the Harold Pinter Theatre’s production of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? at the request of the play’s lead, Imelda Staunton. Snack in the bar before curtain-up if you like. Grab a tub of ice cream at the interval. But if you want to stuff yourself, go to a restaurant not a theatre.

DON’T LEAVE YOUR HAT ON

Theatres are often old. Seating configurations are cramped and narrow. Don’t bung up the aisles with rucksacks, bags and bulky coats. Take your Peaky Blinders headgear off. If you are cold, make like a proper luvvie and wear a big scarf.

DON’T FOLD YOUR ARMS

Or pick your nose. Or yawn. Particularly if you are in the front few rows. The actors can see you clearly and every grimace, eye roll, glazed-over thousand-yard stare will be a performance buzzkill. So, sit up, try not to cough, pay attention, listen, engage. Smile. Cry. And don’t forget, chin UP, darling.

DON’T SING ALONG OR REPEAT THE LINES

If you are at a musical it is tempting to sing along to the tunes. Do not do this. You have a lousy voice, you are tone deaf, and you don’t really know the lyrics. There should be absolutely no running commentary on the dialogue or plot points, either. During the heart-wrenching climax of The Judas Kiss at the Duke of York’s Theatre in 2013, the audience fell silent as Rupert Everett’s

Oscar Wilde was about to be betrayed by Freddie Fox’s Lord Alfred Douglas. As Fox lent in for his last, perfidious peck, a man in the seat behind me said loudly, ‘There it is… the Judas kiss!’

DON’T ADVISE OR CRITIQUE

Frank Skinner once approached Andrew Lloyd Webber backstage at his lavish production of The Sound Of Music and asked, ‘Can I make one suggestion?’ Mr Lloyd Webber raised a palm, closed his eyes and replied, ‘Please don’t.’ Quite correct, too. No one wants to hear your clever little critique of a show. If you didn’t like it, just say, ‘That was UNIQUE.’

DO KEEP YOUR DISTANCE

Hollywood stars and big names off the telly are all over the West End. And while it is great fun to see a Star Wars actor or someone off Holby City treading the boards, it is really naff and not very ‘theatre’ to fawn over them.

DON’T SPEAK, EVER

Resist the temptation to contribute to the play’s dialogue, no matter how tempting it might be. When Dame Judi Dench, in her 20s, was playing Juliet in Romeo And Juliet at the Old Vic, her parents attended every show. One night when the young actress cried out the line, ‘Where are my mother and father, Nurse?’ her father answered back from the stalls, ‘Here we are, darling, in Row H.’ At the same theatre, while Joe Stilgoe was playing the piano during an in-the-round production of High Society, a member of the audience wandered up to his keyboard and introduced himself. ‘Hello Joe, I’m an old friend of your father’s.’ ‘Very nice to meet you,’ said Joe, ‘but you must be mistaken. This is the 1950s and I am an American jazz musician.’

DON’T FALL ASLEEP

Some people seem to regard the theatre as a kind of dosshouse, falling into a deep sleep during the first act. If you suffer from TIN (Theatrically Induced Narcolepsy), make sure that you have a lie-down at home before you attend a show. Or, alternatively, get a double shot of espresso at a nearby café on the way in. Snoring is rude and annoying and must be treated with a series of sharp shoulder nudges by the person in the neighbouring seat.

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