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.

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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.