June 28, 2013 7:35 pm

London theatregoers, I feel your pain

‘The audience may look like they are having a good time but inwardly a proportion of them are seething’
An illustration depicting the irritation and anger that accompanies a night in the West End©Lucas Varela

Our family night out at the theatre was enlivened by a brief row when a man swore at the girl. Perhaps he was outraged at the presence of children in his theatre, although the fact that the show was Matilda The Musical might have offered him a clue that this was likely.

He and his partner arrived late, just as the show was starting, though having taken time to visit the bar first, and spent rather too long sitting down. On hearing the girl saying “I can’t see, Daddy” the man turned around and hissed “just ****ing wait”. I’m not going to pretend that she doesn’t know the F-word but she’s not used to having it snarled at her by adults. I snapped back at him, calling him a lout and telling him not to swear at my daughter. I had, of course, first weighed up the chances of his hitting me and decided they were low enough for a display of courage. You do, after all, get a better class of lout at the theatre.

Given his clipped voice and generally pukka demeanour – he was spiritually if not literally wearing red trousers – being called a “lout” was probably not a common experience for him. After this he studiously avoided our gaze at the interval and scuttled out at the end. I like to think that he sat there fuming, wanting to come back at me but knowing he was in the wrong. Then again, he may not have given a damn.

But I’m going to guess that swearing at a 10-year-old girl was not part of his master plan for the evening when he left home. Nor is it the kind of behaviour ordinarily designed to impress women. I’ve never been a great one for dating manuals but I’m fairly sure that effing away at a small child is not one of the top tips to show your sensitive side.

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Robert Shrimsley

It may be that he was simply uncouth but there was something in the exasperation in his voice that I recognised. It seemed apiece with a wider and increasingly obvious manifestation of the London theatre scene, namely the simmering irritation and anger that accompanies a night in the West End. Oh yes, the theatregoers may look like they are having a good time; they may even be enjoying the show, but inwardly a significant proportion of them are seething. This is, I accept, a bit of a generalisation. But just sitting in the bar at the interval one could sense and hear the anger and bitterness. The seats are uncomfortable; the theatre is often stuffy; it takes ages to find a parking space so you have to rush your meal; the drinks are overpriced and you could have spent a romantic evening in a country hotel for the price of the tickets. Fundamentally, West End theatre is for tourists, the young, single and well-to-do.

I experienced all these thoughts – and this was during an essentially successful night, watching a show we all enjoyed. It really is a great production – but was it great enough for the hassle and a cost that equates to twice the average weekly wage? Imagine spending that sum to enjoy an evening of meaningful pauses, or a drama about some sordid affair that “punctures the complacent façade of the middle-class marriage”. There are, apparently, lots of people who enjoy this. But then there are thousands of people who travel to Blackpool just to see the illuminations. And while the spawn were grateful, they would have been as happy with the new Superman movie.

The very best plays are made into films. Half the shows in the West End already have a movie version – there even seems to be a musical of From Here to Eternity, heaven help us – and much of the rest seem to be musical tribute shows; recycled period drama, a couple of farces and the inexplicably long-running Mousetrap. Strip out the National Theatre or anything by Tom Stoppard, and it’s a pretty dismal offering.

A friend once suggested a play called Stalls in which the curtain rises and one half of the audience is watching the other half. It’s got everything. Real life, expense, rows, resentment, meaningful silences and someone getting up to go to the toilet. And as an added bonus, the view is just as good in the cheap seats.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

Twitter @robertshrimsley

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