Here’s what ‘crass’ looks like:

There are some days you just don’t use as a theme for any kind of marketing initiative. No need to dwell on why – I’m sure we all know where we were and what we were doing when it happened, and have all of the horrific images etched permanently on our retinas – but today is most definitely one of them.

Apparently, unless you’re AT&T. This showed up in their Twitter feed earlier today:

crass

Classy, isn’t it? Not surprisingly, there was something of a backlash on Twitter and elsewhere; also not surprisingly, AT&T very quickly pulled the tweet and issued an “apology”:

ATT

This “apology” itself, though, makes entertaining reading. Look carefully – they apologise to anyone who felt the tweet was in poor taste, and what that means, unfortunately, is that the apology is crashingly insincere. “I’m sorry you feel I offended you” and “I’m sorry I did something offensive” are not the same thing.

At the very least, the person who came up with the concept of the original tweet must be a real piece of work, as must whoever came up with the lame fauxpology when they saw the backlash. It probably won’t, but I really hope this costs AT&T at least some customers. It deserves to.

Edit 12/9/13

…and apparently AT&T’s CEO agrees – or at least, is disturbed enough by the online backlash that it’s dawned on him that the original mealy-mouthed apology-that-isn’t is not really good enough. This morning, he provided a second apology in a post to AT&T’s consumer blog:

We’re big believers that social media is a great way to engage with our customers because the conversation is constant, personal and dynamic.

Yesterday, we did a Facebook post intended to honor those impacted by the events of 9/11. Unfortunately, the image used in the post fell woefully short of honoring the lives lost on that tragic day.

I want to personally express to our customers, employees, and all those impacted by the events of 9/11 my heart felt apologies. I consider that date a solemn occasion each year, a time when I reach out to those I was with on that awful day, share a moment of reflection for the lives lost and express my love of country. It is a day that should never be forgotten and never, ever commercialized. I commit AT&T to this standard as we move forward.

–Randall Stephenson, AT&T Chairman and CEO

That’s better, and a lot less culturally tone-deaf than the lame tweet posted yesterday. I don’t like the use of ‘impact’ as a verb (it’s not technically incorrect, but it’s inelegant; there are better ways to convey the same meaning), and it would be nice if someone who has risen to the level of CEO of a very major corporation could spell ‘heartfelt’, but it’s a reasonable effort. You will, however, note that he’s stating that 9/11 is a day that should “never, ever [be] commercialized” less than 24 hours after his corporation was widely mocked on Twitter for publishing an image that attempts to wring commercial capital out of 9/11. Possibly his attitude yesterday was not the same as his attitude today. That photograph, and the fauxpology that followed, did not spontaneously emerge from a vacuum. That photograph took planning; somebody had the idea, someone else signed off on it, probably more people still were involved in creating the actual image. The CEO sets the tone within a corporation; if any of those several people, or their superiors, “consider[ed] that date a solemn occasion each year”, they wouldn’t have put the image out there in the first place.

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Ms. J’Adore, Ms. iPhone, and the screamer

I love theatre. I love going to the theatre more than very nearly anything else. I go to the theatre as often as I can (although not always as often as I’d like), and I’ll see very nearly anything. Theatre excites me, provokes me, makes me happy, very occasionally infuriates me, and however much utter dreck I find myself sitting through – yes, I survived Monkee Business: The Musical with at least some of my braincells intact, and even, God help me, went back for the second act – I can’t ever imagine a life in which I don’t go to the theatre regularly.

I love Fascinating Aida too – that’s the satirical cabaret group with Dillie Keane, Adèle Anderson and (currently) Liza Pulman, not the opera by Verdi (I say this only because I mentioned I was going to see them the other day and a friend asked me if there’d be live elephants). If you’ve been living under a rock, and nobody’s forwarded you the link to Cheap Flights, go and watch it NOW. I’ve been listening to their recordings since the I got the first one in the late 80s  (‘Moscow, Moscow’ is one of those songs that always makes me smile), I’ve seen them live several times, and I am a huge fan. I saw their show last night at the Lowry in Salford, and they were superb. Their material – all written themselves – is terrific, and they have, by now, worked their act up to a standard that very, very few comedy/cabaret groups can match. The new material – including swipes at Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, the Brothers Miliband, Fifty Shades of Grey, Katie Price and Richard Branson – was sharp and very funny, and the excursions into their back catalogue – the pointed takedown of new-age mysticism in ‘One True Religion’, the glorious ‘Getting It’ (a song about the perils of Viagra), the deadly-accurate Weill spoof ‘Leider’ – showed the astonishing breadth of their material. They even, last night, did a more-or-less serious country-and-western number – ‘Glad You’re Gone’, I think it was called, sung beautifully by the wonderful Liza Pulman – along with a serious song called ‘This Table’ that pays tribute to absent friends; the former was great fun, the latter was extremely moving, and the show as a whole was terrific. They’re remarkable, all of them, and it’s always a pleasure to see them.

So I love the theatre, and I love Fascinating Aida. I am, however, beginning to hate theatre audiences.

Take last night. I was sitting in seat G25. On my right, in G24, we had Ms. Marinaded-for-a-week-in-J’Adore-by-Dior. I’ve never really got to grips with the etiquette of applying perfume because I don’t wear cologne myself (I seem to be allergic to quite a lot of it), but I don’t think the process involves running a bath of the stuff and then soaking in it for about four days. This woman’s scent, I’m afraid, was overpowering to the point where her BO would actually have been preferable. If anyone had struck a match, the mushroom cloud would have been visible from space. She was wearing enough of the stuff, anyway, that I spent pretty much the entire show trying not to sneeze. She was also not capable of sitting still, and every time she moved, another Dior-fuelled poison cloud wafted my way. I’m sure she thought she smelled lovely. Nope.

On my left, in seat G26, we had Ms. iPhone. She behaved herself through the first half. Halfway through the second half, she got out her iPhone to check a text message. It took her a surprisingly long time to turn it off. In a darkened theatre, the light from an iPhone’s screen is very distracting. In row G, it would certainly have been visible from the stage. But, of course, her momentary whim to check a message was far more important than the ability of everyone sitting around her to watch the show undisturbed by her appalling lack of manners, so she didn’t let any consideration for anyone else get in the way of that vital text that couldn’t wait another 25 minutes. She was special.

I’m saving the very best for last. Directly behind me, in row H – I think in H27, or one of the seats either side – was the screamer. No, not in any bedroom sense. This lady was Having A Good Time, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. Everyone there was having a good time, or trying to. Ms. Screamer, however, felt the urge to announce to her companions – and, because she clearly needed a larger audience, the rest of the world – that she was Having A Really Good Time. To that end, she did not laugh; she shrieked ‘HA! HA! HA!’, at the top of her considerable voice – and no, it wasn’t a laugh, it was separate syllables, clearly enunciated. In several songs and some of the patter between them, the jokes came thick and fast, so she SHRIEKED rather a lot. In order to demonstrate what a fabulous time she was having, she often rocked back and forth as she did so, which meant that she SHRIEKED her enthusiasm directly into my left ear, at a volume pitch that was somewhere between a Boeing 707 on takeoff and Armageddon. She also had a tendency to either repeat punchlines loudly to her companions or shout ‘BRILLIANT!’ over them, I assume because she was somehow incapable of sitting still and not drawing attention to herself. There’s no point, unfortunately, in complaining to someone like that, because she’s more or less certainly so thoroughly self-centred that she’ll have had no idea at all of how rude and unpleasant her behaviour was to the people sitting around her, all of whom had paid a not-trivial sum of money to be there – although perhaps singling Ms. Screamer out for being self-centred is unfair; all three of these ladies, in their way, were rude and inconsiderate to the people around them, not to mention thoroughly selfish, and all three should have known better. The best I can say about the behaviour of the people around me at the show last night is that at least, thank God, nobody had brought a bag of crisps.

None of these people, of course, were young, and I’m afraid it’s been a recurring theme for a while now that the worst behaviour I encounter at the theatre is from people who are older than I am. Yes, sure, you can complain to the house management – but that’s easier said than done in the middle of an act when you’re in the middle of a row, a dozen seats at least from either aisle. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the show last night – I did, very much, and Fascinating Aida are always worth seeing – but the three “ladies” sitting around me, between them, made the experience much less than it should have been. That, these days, is far too common. Is it really that difficult, at the theatre, to behave in a way that’s respectful to the rest of the audience?

Shall I tell you what I think of you?

This afternoon, I saw the current UK tour of The King and I at the Liverpool Empire. Unless hell freezes over, or I get forced to at gunpoint, or I suffer some kind of permanent concussion, the likelihood of my ever going to see anything else at the Liverpool Empire is somewhere close to nil.

It wasn’t the show’s fault, although I was less than impressed, going in, to see that this theatre charges £4.00 for a programme, which is a rip-off. I can’t, in all honesty, say that this is an absolutely ideal production of The King and I, simply because the circumstances in which it was produced inevitably mean that it doesn’t use the full original orchestrations,  and this score, of all scores, is never going to sound its best played by an “orchestra” of just nine, even if the reduced orchestration (by Julian Kelly) has been tastefully done. You don’t ever hear anything that sounds like a synthesiser, for which relief much thanks – the band uses ‘real’ musical instruments, just not enough of them.

Aside from the lack of about twenty more people in the orchestra pit, though, this is a confident, stylish, very entertaining staging that makes as good a case as anyone could for a show that, while an acknowledged classic with a gorgeous score, is not quite top-drawer Rodgers and Hammerstein. Everybody knows the story, so I’m not going to recap it here; the show’s examination of people from two different cultures clashing and ultimately learning from each other has dated a little around the edges. Western attitudes towards other cultures have changed a great deal since 1951, mostly for the better, and there is now a slightly uncomfortable whiff of colonialist condescension hanging over the material; that said, given the distant-land-far-away setting and a score that, while beautiful, does not entirely convincingly evoke the far east (particularly when it’s dressed in the reduced orchestrations used here), perhaps the best approach these days is simply to view the show as an exotic fable, despite the piece’s roots in autobiography.

And viewed through that lens, this production certainly delivers. The production originated at Curve, like the revival of Gypsy I gushed over the other week, and the touring production, unusually, is produced by a consortium of receiving houses rather than by a regular producer (which basically means, according to a programme note, that each venue stumped up part of the production cost in return for a greater slice of the profits than they’d get from a conventionally-funded production). That’s something to celebrate; there are certainly ratty, tacky, stripped-down musical revivals out on the road (I remember, with not much pleasure at all, a particularly excruciating Hello Dolly that made the rounds a few years ago whose set looked like it was made mostly out of cornflake packets and sticky-back plastic), but this isn’t one of them. Like most musicals that come out of Curve, it’s directed by Paul Kerryson, who knows his way around a musical revival. The show looks good, with elegant sets and costumes by Sara Perks and evocative lighting by Philip Gladwell. There’s a cast of over twenty – not huge by Broadway standards, but very large for something coming from a subsidised regional theatre – and a team of sixteen children. And there’s effective choreography by David Needham that culminates in an absolutely glorious version of the Act Two ‘Small House of Uncle Thomas’ ballet.

Most of all, there are lovely performances. The children are charming, the ensemble are terrific, and while there might not be a lush orchestra here, the singing, across the board, is very, very fine, with particularly strong work from Adrian Li Donni and Claire-Marie Hall as Lun Tha and Tuptim. And there’s certainly no faulting Josefina Gabrielle and Ramon Tikaram as Mrs. Anna and the King – they sing beautifully (yes, him too), they have marvellous chemistry, and they’re both absolutely compelling.

So, yes, I liked the production very much, but this afternoon’s experience is still not one I’d ever willingly repeat. What was wrong with the show? The audience. Oh my God, the audience. Sitting in the Liverpool Empire for three hours with those people was so unpleasant that wild horses couldn’t drag me back there.

In Act One, there was a group of about half-a-dozen ladies sitting in the row directly behind me. They talked, and not at a whisper. They rattled crisp packets and sweet wrappers more than you would think humanly possible, even after my last trip to the Palace Theatre in Manchester. If anyone turned around, glared, tried to shut them up, they either gawped or laughed. When Josefina Gabrielle started to sing ‘Getting to Know You’, at least two of them sang along. I wrote, a while back, about the obnoxious people sitting behind me at a performance of Mamma Mia; today’s charmers, I’m afraid, were louder, although they did, to their slight credit, seem to be somewhat less addicted to the F-word. And it wasn’t just them, either – the sound of crinkling, rustling plastic from behind me was more than intrusively loud, but similar sounds were audible from other people much further away, along with conversation, banging doors when people either arrived late or walked out in the middle of the act to go to the loo, and pretty much everything else that falls under the heading of distracting audience behaviour (with one exception: miraculously, as far as I could tell, nobody’s mobile phone went off).

I gritted my teeth until the end of the first act, then at the start of the intermission I went to find a member of the front-of-house staff, and asked to be reseated for the second act because of the obnoxious behaviour that had been going on behind me all through the first. The usher I spoke to went to find the house manager, who went off to the box-office to check the seating chart, and came back and offered me a choice of alternate locations. The lady was pleasant, apologetic, and helpful, and I certainly don’t have any complaint about the way she handled the situation.

The fun really began at the end of the intermission, when I sat down in one of the unoccupied seats the house manager had suggested. My sitting down in this previously unoccupied seat prompted the start of a running commentary from the two astonishingly foul-mouthed ladies sitting in the row behind (do you sense a recurring theme here?) – unbelievably, along the lines of “he’s f***ing taken that seat, it isn’t his, they should f***ing throw him out” (I suspect that the taller of these two classy examples of humanity was annoyed because her coat had been draped over the back of the seat). They’d bought ice creams during the intermission. I bet you think ice cream tubs are a quiet food, don’t you? Not where these ladies were concerned. I think one of them was perhaps trying to dig a tunnel to China through the bottom of the cardboard tub. You wouldn’t imagine it was possible to make that much noise armed only with a cardboard ice cream tub and the tiny wooden spoon that comes with it. Through this bizarre rhapsody of scraping – which obliterated most of ‘I Have Dreamed’ – they kept up a commentary on both me (as if where I was sitting was any of their business) and the show, none of which was conducted at a whisper. The absolute nadir came when the gentleman sitting next to me – whose behaviour was impeccable – decided he’d had enough, and turned around and hissed at them to shut up… at which point one or other of these fine specimens of charm and good breeding (I couldn’t see which) yelled  ‘what did you f***ing say to me?’ and clipped me round the earhole. The last person who did that was my dad, and he’s been dead for nearly a decade… and I don’t think I ever, in twenty-nine years, heard him use that particular word.

There’s nothing I could have done that wouldn’t have somehow resulted in even more disruption, even though there was nobody sitting between me and the end of the row, so I sat there seething. They were a little quieter after this, but only a little, and Act Two, in any case, came with the same background symphony of conversation, crisps and sweet wrappers as Act One, so essentially there wasn’t a single moment of the performance that wasn’t accompanied by some kind of distraction. As I got up to leave at the end of the curtain call, the taller (and louder) of these two ‘ladies’ again loudly announced to the world that ‘they should have f***ing thrown you out’. Nice. Again, there’s nothing much I could have said that wouldn’t have caused the situation to deteriorate into a shouting-match, so I just left as quickly as I could.

I don’t feel particularly good about saying this, because my experience of Liverpool has mostly been of a fun, vibrant, fascinating city full of friendly, genuinely lovely people – but this afternoon’s experience, all of it, was really, really unpleasant, and there’s nothing much that the theatre’s staff could have done that they didn’t do, willingly and promptly, as soon as they were asked. The only step the theatre’s management could possibly have taken to prevent this afternoon’s litany of appalling behaviour would have been to put every single member of the audience in shackles and duct-tape their mouths as they entered the auditorium. It might have been worth it, but human rights groups would probably find those measures a little extreme.

Fortunately for me, the Empire presents more or less nothing that doesn’t also tour to at least one other venue within a similar distance of home.  Going to the theatre shouldn’t involve negotiating an assault-course of distractions, or getting whacked around the ear because someone else asked somebody to shut up. The audience, I’m afraid, completely ruined the production; no part of sitting in the Liverpool Empire this afternoon was pleasant, and the fact that I paid for this Godawful experience is… well, what’s the opposite of icing on the cake? All that being the case, the answer seems to be very simple: I won’t be going back. Hell is (sometimes) other people; seeing a classic musical shouldn’t be.

 

[Edit – 11/4/12 – the Empire’s management got in touch with me today via Twitter and made a very kind gesture of goodwill because I’d had such an unpleasant experience. While I chose not to take them up on their very generous offer, I do appreciate the gesture very much, and they deserve a lot of credit for monitoring blogs and social networking sites and paying attention to what their customers say about the experience of seeing a show in their venue.]

 

Unenchanted evening

Or rather, afternoon, although Thursday evening was in some ways similarly unenchanting. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Today, I’m afraid, was just one of those days. I had a ticket this afternoon to the UK tour of South Pacific at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. I love the show, it’s a terrific production, I was looking forward to it. I left home just before 12.30pm to catch a bus into the city – or rather, to catch a bus to somewhere where I could catch a bus into the city – and arrived at the stop a few minutes before the bus (supposed to run every thirty minutes) was due. And I waited… and waited, and waited, and waited, until 1.15pm, thirteen minutes after the following bus was supposed to have come and gone, at which point I realised that even if a bus turned up at that very moment, there was basically no way the bus was going to get me into Manchester in time to make a 2.30pm curtain up at the Palace. I called a taxi. It’s about eleven miles from here into Manchester via the route the taxi took; the fare was significantly expensive. That, I’m afraid, is what you run the risk of getting when you travel with First Manchester. Today was the sixth time in two weeks that I have had to wait for over thirty minutes for one of their services, and they have, in fact, just been fined by the regulator because their services are so consistently unreliable, so I’m a little curious to know what their managing director, Mr. Richard Soper, does to earn his presumably very comfortable salary. Given the generally appalling standard of the bus service around here, I assume not much.

So I wasn’t in a great mood when I got to the theatre, and the fun was only just beginning. The really special portion of the day began when the house lights went down. Between the candy wrappers, the talking, the nearly constant procession of people getting up during the performance to go to the loo, and the cell phones, there was very little of the first half that wasn’t in some way interrupted by some kind of breach of audience etiquette. And the crisps. Oh my God, the crisps. Is bringing large bags of designer crisps to the theatre now a thing? Is it what people do? Because it’s completely obnoxious. If you add the constant munching, crunching, and rustling of plastic wrappers to the talking and the cellphones… well, I might as well have been watching the show from a seat in the food court at a mall.

Unfortunately, when it comes to audience etiquette, the Palace’s management are a useless waste of space. This afternoon, they didn’t even make any announcement asking people to switch off their mobile phones before the show started – so guess what? In the part of the theatre where I was sitting, phones went off three times in the first half and twice in the second. The front-of-house staff, of course, were nowhere to be seen at the interval. They did, however, take the time to open the outside doors – yes, to the street – before the show’s final scene was over. The street is up a flight of stairs from where I was sitting, true, but the moment when Emile appears from the verandah to join Nellie and the children singing ‘Dites-Moi’ at the end of the show was – how can I say this nicely? – not improved at all by the addition of a blast of cold air and traffic noise from Whitworth Street outside. And that’s a pity; an understudy was on as Emile – Stephen John Davis, he was superb, and his ‘This Nearly Was Mine’ raised goosebumps and stopped the show – and it would have been nice to let him get to the end of his (terrific) performance without outside interference. Particularly since, God knows, there was enough interference going in inside the auditorium already.

And unfortunately this sort of appalling audience behaviour is becoming more and more common. The audience was equally delightful when I saw this production during its first stint at the Palace last year, and at a screening of the New York Philharmonic‘s concert of Sondheim‘s Company the other night the two “ladies” sitting behind me had brought sandwiches from home – wrapped in aluminium foil, which they were incapable of unwrapping quietly. They, too, had brought crisps, although their crisps were slightly quieter than the aluminium foil.

I’ve written before that Company is a favourite show of mine; the concert was great fun, and even Ms. Patti LuPone (of whom I am not always a fan) was on her best behaviour, by which I mean her performance did actually include some consonants. Not all of them, obviously, but far more than she usually manages, and she only tortured about a quarter of her vowels. There were lovely performances from everybody else, but particularly from Stephen Colbert and Martha Plimpton, who gave, on I assume relatively little rehearsal, a sharply funny account of the karate scene  (Colbert is no great shakes as a singer, but he did a touching, sweetly sad job of his portion of ‘Sorry-Grateful’). I really enjoyed it, and I expect to enjoy it even more when I watch it on DVD without the additional, unwanted soundtrack of other people eating, talking, and rustling food wrappers.

One more thing: this is not about young people not knowing how to behave. Most of the rude behaviour I’m talking about came from people who are at least ten years older than I am.  It’s not as if either performance was completely ruined for me – on the contrary, I enjoyed both shows very much. In both cases, though, the whispering, the noisy eating sounds, the rustling wrappers, cellphones and all the rest of it were significantly distracting, and significantly annoying, and – God, I sound like a grumpy old man here – it’s depressing to think that the people I’m writing about have no idea – not a clue – of how their rude, disruptive, selfish behaviour spoiled the show for the people around them.

And, once again, for their failure to even make a gesture towards enforcing any kind of audience etiquette by asking people to turn off their mobile phones, and for their crass, intrusive choice of precisely the wrong moment to open the exit doors at the end of the show, the Palace Theatre Manchester’s front-of-house staff deserve some kind of prize for their absolute, gold-plated, copper-bottomed, neon-lit uselessness.

Put it away, and SHUT UP!

I’ve been to the theatre a couple of times this week – the very, very fabulous satirical cabaret group Fascinating Aida at the Lowry in Salford, and then the UK tour of Lincoln Center Theater‘s production of South Pacific at the Palace in Manchester. I’ll talk about the shows in a minute. First, I want to talk about the audiences. Oh God, the audiences. Specifically, what I want to talk about is why some people, after shelling out a medium-hefty sum of money for a theatre ticket, apparently find it so difficult to sit still and shut up.

It wasn’t so bad on Tuesday at the Lowry (for some reason, audiences at the Lowry seem to be rather more polite than audiences at the Palace or the Opera House). Fascinating Aida played in the smaller theatre, the Quays, and it was a packed house; mostly, as far as I could tell, the audience behaviour wasn’t hideous. There was one idiot somewhere near the front who hadn’t switched off her mobile phone, and then there was a party of four people who, unfortunately, were sitting directly to my right (if anybody reading this was at the 5pm performance on Tuesday October 25th, these charmers were in row G, seats 1-4 in the stalls). It’s not just that they periodically made comments to each other slightly too loudly (by which I mean they made no attempt to whisper). It’s that they arrived with snacks. Specifically, with bags of different flavours of designer crisps, which they proceeded to offer each other – not quietly – throughout the whole of the second half. Apparently sitting for a whole hour without putting some kind of fried potato product into their mouths would have caused them some kind of serious physical hardship. It’s not really possible to pass cellophane crisp packets around silently, not that they tried. The show was hilarious, but unfortunately, for me, it came accompanied with an intermittent running commentary (from four people who, I’m afraid, were neither as funny or as clever as they thought they were, and certainly nowhere near as funny or as clever as the three people on the stage), and the sound of crunching and rustling plastic.

And then there was South Pacific at the Palace. I booked for this ages ago – back in January, in fact – and spent a fair amount of money on the ticket: £50, when you factor in Ticketmaster‘s obscene booking fees (these people, astonishingly, have the unmitigated gall to charge you a fee of a few pounds to print off your ticket yourself, on your own printer, using your own ink, on top of their regular booking fee. Thieves and crooks, the lot of them, and if there’s any justice they’ll be first against the wall when the revolution comes. Or maybe second, after Simon Cowell. But I digress.) I’d been looking forward to it for a long time. I suppose it’s a measure of how far downhill we’ve slid that I don’t regard this afternoon’s audience as having been that bad (you know, rather in the manner of, say, infected peritonitis not being that bad compared to pancreatic cancer). So… South Pacific, Palace Theatre in Manchester, matinée performance on Saturday October 29th. Some highlights:

First off, let’s all offer our congratulations to the adorable couple seated in seats E-23 and E-24. She stood in the aisle for ten minutes before the start of the show then took her seat as the overture began – those seats, of course, are right in the middle of the centre block, and so naturally she waited until everybody between those seats and the aisle had sat down, because otherwise there might have been someone in that row that she wouldn’t have been able to disturb. He took his seat 90 seconds into the overture, presumably to make absolutely sure that everybody had sat down after getting up to let his wife pass. They whispered to each other through the rest of the overture and into the first scene – an urgent conversation about precisely where he’d had to park the car to avoid paying for parking (sorry, if you can afford to drop £100 on two stalls seats for a musical, you can afford to pay to park your car in the car park next to the theatre so that you’ll get to your seats before the lights go down). One must assume that they each had something pressing to do before leaving home that prevented them from leaving ten minutes earlier so that they could take their seats on time and not disrupt the start of the show for several dozen people who had all paid about £50 a pop to be there. Or perhaps they were just rude or selfish or inconsiderate. Hmm.

Then let’s all give it up for the lady – I use the term loosely, ‘lady’ implies someone who has manners – who was seated in seat E-18. Her handbag contained a plastic bottle of orange juice, which was itself contained within a Sainsbury’s plastic carrier bag. Every time she wanted a sip of juice, she rustled around in her handbag for the plastic bag, rustled the carrier bag getting the bottle out of it, crinkled the carrier bag in her hands as she took a drink, rustled the carrier bag again as she put the juice bottle back into it, then rustled it again as she put it back into her handbag. She did this approximately every six minutes, all the way through the show. Her routine added greatly to the climax of “This Nearly Was Mine”, but she managed to sprinkle her special kind of magic stardust over several of the show’s key moments. It’s not like she just crinkled her plastic bag during the loud bits.

Equally entertaining was the near-constant procession of people heading to the toilets in the last thirty minutes of Act One and the last fifteen minutes of Act Two. People, if sitting still and not having a wee for a maximum period of 90 minutes is seriously impossible for you, get a colostomy bag fitted, wear Depends, or at least book an aisle seat in a side block. It’s a theatre, not your living room, and neither age nor a pressing need to take a whizz translate into any kind of right to disrupt the performance for the people around you. Suck it up, hold it in, and don’t go to the bar before the performance starts.

A lady sitting behind me had a bag of Cadbury Eclairs. They’re individually wrapped in cellophane. She wasn’t as loud as the lady with the Sainsbury’s carrier bag, but she was even better at picking her moment.

And two general notes:

One, some people, believe it or not, actually want to listen to the overture and entr’acte. When they start, SHUT UP. At the very least, shut your trap when the lights go down.

Two, leaving during the curtain call is rude. The actors have been working their backsides off for (in this particular case) the last three hours, delivering marvellous performances in the face of talking, rustling carrier bags, crinkling sweet wrappers, and a procession of people taking trips to the loo during the play’s key scenes. The least you can do – the very least you can do – is applaud them when they’re done. If you have to put another pound into the machine in the car park, boo-hoo.

I sound cranky, don’t I? This wasn’t an audience from hell, and it certainly didn’t compare to the hideous experience I had the last time I saw a show at the Palace. This afternoon’s audience, I’m afraid, pretty much reflected the normal standard of behaviour in theatres these days (and a friend who saw Legally Blonde at the Opera House the other day had very similar things to say afterwards about the general state of audience behaviour from the people sitting around her) – and, sorry, if this is normal, it isn’t good enough. Surely it can’t be so incredibly difficult for grown adults to switch off their mobile phones and then sit still, shut up, stop fidgeting and not eat for an hour and a half?

So, yes, the shows. Fascinating Aida: they’re great. They’ve a new soprano this time – Sarah-Louise Young – and she’s got a great voice and killer comic timing (her solo show and recording –  Cabaret Whore – is well worth checking out). The new material is excellent (they open with a song about the financial meltdown: “Companies Using Nifty Taxation Systems”), the old material still plays well (and yes, Dillie Keane still does her amazing piano-stool acrobatics during “Lieder”), and I don’t think there will ever be a time when “Yes, But Is It Art?” fails to make me laugh. They’re wonderful, they should be national treasures, and their Bulgarian Song Cycles are touched by near-Godlike comic genius.

South Pacific… this is a British touring remount of the Lincoln Center production, which means it isn’t designed for the vast stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, which means that you don’t get that glorious moment halfway through the overture where the stage’s apron slides back to reveal the orchestra underneath. It’s still a very handsome show to look at. One original Broadway cast member in Manchester: Loretta Ables Sayre as Bloody Mary, and she’s wonderful. Jason Howard is also wonderful as Emile (he took over the role on Broadway and played it through much of the US tour), and his “This Nearly Was Mine” is deeply moving, even when it comes accompanied by a selfish old trout rattling a plastic carrier bag all the way through. And Samantha Womack’s Nellie is a huge, huge surprise. Unlike Kelli O’Hara, who originated the role in this production on Broadway, she doesn’t have a spectacular, one-off voice. She’s a perfectly capable singer, though, with more than a touch of Mary Martin about her, and she’s giving a performance that’s honest, truthful, thoroughly charming and ultimately extremely touching. More than that, she has whatever that undefinable quality is that makes you look at her when she walks onstage. She’s not the greatest singer and she might not be the most versatile actress, but she’s giving a superb performance here. But then, so is everybody, right down to the last member of the chorus. This is almost – almost – as good a production of South Pacific as you could ever expect to see.

There’s always a quibble, isn’t there? This time, it’s the orchestra. On Broadway, this production (according to the reviews; I downloaded the cast album so I don’t have a list of the orchestra members) had 30 players delivering Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestrations, and on that album (and on the telecast) they sound absolutely glorious. This incarnation also delivers those original orchestrations, but it does so via only 17 players, which I assume is the absolute bare minimum number of warm bodies needed to deliver what’s on those charts. There’s no synthesisers, no string pad, no virtual orchestra – and believe me I’m thrilled that there’s none of those things – but there’s also a violin section of two. The musicians play beautifully under the musical direction of Jae Alexander, but there’s a certain thrilling sound that comes from having a big string section; this score needs it, and it isn’t present in this production.

They do, however, win points for selling a beautiful glossy souvenir brochure full of large, full-colour production photos for only £4.00; they get a couple of points knocked off, though, for including an article in the regular programme that perpetuates the lazy and historically inaccurate myth that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! was the first-ever properly integrated musical play. Nope.

Still, it’s a glorious production, and my complaints are essentially quibbles. I loved it, it moved me, Bartlett Sher has drawn exquisite performances from every member of his cast, it looks great even in this touring version, and I’m fully intending to see it again when the tour swings back into this part of the world next year.

And who knows? Next time, I might even get to sit among audience members who can keep still and shut up after the lights go down. As someone says in act two, there’s always a chance.

Genius in action

I voted yesterday. It was very exciting. Borough council, Parish council, referendum on the alternative vote. Democracy in action – at least, for the 41% of the electorate who could be arsed to show up. Perhaps a lot of people had to wash their hair yesterday, or spend a lot more time than usual sitting on the toilet reading Heat magazine. Sorry, people, if you can’t be bothered to get off your backsides to complete the incredibly arduous task of ticking a box on a piece of paper, you don’t get to gripe about the results, whatever they might be. For all of the interminable talk all over the news channels today about the electorate delivering a clear message to the coalition/Nick Clegg/Kerry Katona David Cameron, the biggest story, I think, is how few people took the trouble to show up, given the level of cuts that our current Coalition of the Damned is trying to push through parliament at the moment.

The vote itself, however, was more or less eclipsed for me by the comedy genius in charge of the grounds at my local polling station. My local polling station is a school – actually, the junior school I went to myself, once upon a time. And yes, the thought of Mrs. S*********** still gives me the creeps to the point where attempting to type her name makes me shudder… and, regarding Mrs. S***********, digressing for a moment and apropos of nothing, I can’t imagine how on earth you can do an effective job of teaching a class of 9-year-olds while wearing elaborate makeup, high-heeled boots and inch-long false nails. She presumably can’t either, because she didn’t. Do an effective job of teaching a class of 9-year-olds, I mean*. She did wear the makeup, the boots and the false nails. She still does, I think. I saw her at the supermarket a few weeks ago, which was a reminder that it’s not safe to go out around here without a wooden stake and a couple of heads of garlic in your pocket. Brrrrr.

ANYway.

The part of the building used as a polling station has an outside door that can be reached via two paths. One path – the shorter one –  has flat, step-free access from the street, and the other one has three steps down from the entrance (the building is on a slight slope). There is now  a fairly heavy-duty metal fence around the property (there wasn’t 30-odd years ago when I went there), with big, lockable gates at the pedestrian entrances. The gate to the path with the steps was open. The gate to the flat, step-free path to the polling station door was padlocked, with a disabled access sign hung on it with a notice underneath saying ‘FOR DISABLED ACCESS, ASK INSIDE’.

You know, after having manoeuvred your wheelchair/invalid carriage/zimmer frame down three big concrete steps first. If you had any kind of mobility impairment, and you turned up to vote alone, you were basically screwed until someone else either entered or exited the building.

I’m impressed. Really, really impressed. It takes a special kind of genius to do something that stupid. Presumably whoever locked the gate and wrote the sign imagined that any disabled people who showed up would somehow be able to levitate over a five foot high metal fence. It’s things like this that make you realize Darwin can’t have been entirely correct.

* Favourite Mrs. S*********** memory – she made us do silent reading for half an hour, and had previously issued me with a reading book that was several levels below the kind of stuff I was reading at home. I finished it in about ten minutes and took it back to her desk to ask for another book – and without looking up, she told me I couldn’t have finished it, and to go and read it again. Dreadful, dreadful woman.