Manners cost nothing, we are told as children. Politeness, that great British virtue, is drilled into is as a quality of the highest importance. And there is a certain code of manners associated with going to the theatre, especially somewhere traditional, in London, not what you’d call cheap: we go in, buy our programmes and perhaps some overpriced snacks, sit in our seats, turn off our phones and go silent when the house lights come down. Sometimes we laugh, we gasp, we cry – but in general we are quiet when the actors are acting, and loud when they take their bow. That’s the way it’s done.
Well, that’s certainly not the way it was done when I attended a weekday matinée of Blood Brothers this week. As Willy Russell’s 1983 drama is currently on the Year 9 syllabus, I was accompanying a troupe of schoolgirls to see the show – as were many teachers from a large number of schools, as became clear from the crowds of excited teenagers outside the Phoenix theatre. Groups of young people on a school trip are not exactly the quietest of souls, as I remember from when I was one of them, and I’m sure other members of the audience looking for a nice afternoon out at the theatre may have been horrified by the crowds of teenagers buying sugar-filled snacks and drinks in the foyer. Their buzz of noise filled the auditorium as they chattered excitingly and rustled their crisp packets.
The noise of confectionery packaging aside, this was not a quiet audience. Yes – they laughed, they gasped, they cried. They also gave cries of disgust at Sammy and Mickey’s impressive spitting abilities; they wolf-whistled at the first appearance of the teenage Linda in her short skirt and sky-high stilettos; on one occasion they chorused along to the words “Marilyn Monroe” as that song was repeated in various guises; there was even a raucous shout of “Get in!” as Mickey and Linda shared their first kiss. But far from being irritated by the lack of restraint of this particular audience, I loved the enthusiasm and engagement with the show that they were demonstrating. They were paying attention, reacting to it, showing their connection and emotional investment in what was going on in front of them. At times, I’m sure, some of them thought they were being hilarious – the joker of the pack. But if it was in response to one of Willy Russell’s best-loved and most critically acclaimed pieces of theatre I’m not complaining. Some might say I’m putting too much faith in their appreciation of the show, but I don’t believe they need to be specifically thinking about the fact that they were enjoying and reacting to the show in order to be doing so.
This became clear at the dramatic climax of the show. As armed police officers came through the stalls to the sides of the stage, and as the fateful shots rang out, a burst of shocked, thrilled whispering broke out across the Dress Circle and, indeed, most of the auditorium: followed by the hasty hushing of dozens of teachers. For one thing, this certainly gave those teachers an idea of who had read to the end of the play and who hadn’t… And it also showed that the action had affected this crowd. They were shocked, excited, saddened. Ok, talking over actors in most circumstances appears rude, and perhaps the Narrator did have to pause for a couple of extra seconds for the noise to die – I don’t know. But the urge to share a response to something through conversation with their friends is a basic teenage instinct; it shows an intuitive rush of emotion that is as natural as crying or laughing – an outward demonstration of a feeling.
Anyone sitting in that theatre who tutted or rolled their eyes at this noisy young audience seems to me to be connected with an image of theatre-going which should not be perpetuated. That is, an image that this type of theatre – as opposed to Fringe theatre, cabaret or devised pieces, for example – is stuffy and for a certain kind of person: rich, middle class, Conservative, restrained. The current prices of West End theatre is not helping to shake off this perception. It should be for everyone; it is for everyone, and it is fantastic to see people – and especially children – giving such a response to a show. It’s not as if quietness is the traditional way to watch theatre – just read some accounts of audiences at the Globe on the sixteenth century. I don’t pretend to speak for the cast, but I’d say from the look on their faces at the curtain call they were delighted at the involvement of this excitable and boisterous crowd. The theatre felt alive as the audience were united in a wave of emotion, and I for one would not have had it any different. Forget etiquette, a bunch of noisy teenagers did it right.