Ken Stott’s ordeal at the hands of unruly teenagers during a performance of A View from the Bridge took me back to the late 50’s when I was in a school party seeing the legendary Robert Atkins in Henry IV Part 1 at the Kings Theatre, Southsea. As a teenager who already knew he wanted nothing more than to work in the theatre, I was embarrassed and appalled when some of my classmates joined in a campaign throughout the auditorium to disrupt the matinee performance of our Shakespeare GCE set text. General restlessness led to crisp packet shaking, ribald laughter in inappropriate places and whoops and cheers when Hal kissed the Princess of France. To be honest, I could tell that the performance we were watching wasn’t of the highest quality. The elderly Atkins’ Falstaff was sadly past its best, and the supporting company seemed nervous and under-rehearsed. But they didn’t deserve such rudeness from the audience, which culminated in an ovation at the curtain call. The gleeful teenagers wouldn’t stop clapping. Atkins mistook this as genuine appreciation and kept leading his company in more and more bows. Eventually, several actors gave V signs to the audience and walked off, unseen by Atkins, who kept on smiling graciously till the stage manager sussed the situation and brought in the tabs.
Those of us who create theatre for young children know very well that our audiences will not have natural theatre manners. We accept the challenge of keeping them interested even if we know some of them are first-timers or didn’t choose to come, having been brought by parents or teachers. We do our best to give them an experience which encourages them to want to return. But, if we bore them, we know they will talk, fidget or go to the loo. Our actors also have to cope with crying babies, often brought with older siblings. This is par for the course, part of the job.
But it is not unreasonable to expect teenagers to behave in a more civilised manner. Stagings of set books like a View from the Bridge and An Inspector Calls are mounted partly as a service for them. They are worthy of respect. At the same time, producers’ reasons for putting on these plays are not solely philanthropic. Staging set texts makes commercial sense. So producers must strive to create shows of quality that will grab young people and rivet them to their seats, rendering rude interruptions unlikely.
The schools’ part of the bargain is surely, as Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen wrote in a letter to the Evening Standard, to prepare their pupils better for the theatre visit, and perhaps avert problems by sitting with their class rather than with the other teachers.
I would like to think that teenagers who are already regular theatregoers, having been brought from a young age, would by now have assimilated theatre manners through experience and example. But we must reluctantly accept that, as Ken Stott discovered, there will always be a small number who will want to put a spanner in the works, just for the hell of it. At a performance of my play The Selfish Shellfish at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon, one such eight-year-old Brownie was watching the scene near the end when Seagull, having become entangled with an oil slick, collapses and dies. The full house of primary-age children were totally silent. Seagull was a likeable character and his death was an affecting moment. Suddenly the Brownie loudly declaimed ‘Stupid little bird!’. This was followed by a short burst of embarrassed laughter from a few of her friends. As writer/director, I started to seethe. But my annoyance was soon soothed by the most wonderful sound. A no-nonsense ‘SHHHHHH!’ emerged from a few hundred eight-year olds who didn’t want the moment spoiled, children for whom the magic of the theatre had successfully and rewardingly cast its spell.
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