The dos and don'ts for a theatre audience

Earlier this week we reported on four women who had been told to desist from joining in with the songs during a performance of Motown: The Musical at Sunderland’s Empire Theatre.

Tuesday, 22nd October 2019, 4:48 pm
Updated Wednesday, 23rd October 2019, 2:45 pm
Lesley Powell was one of the 'Motown Four' who were told to stop singing at Sunderland Empire.

The women say the incident ruined their evening, to the point where they left the performance before it was 30 minutes old.

The theatre management said: “As per venue policy, if any customer is talking through a performance (or in some instances singing), and it is deemed to be potentially spoiling the experience of others, they will be politely asked to refrain from doing so.”

I must caveat anything else I am about to say by confirming that I wasn’t there and could not say for definite whether the women were justified in their annoyance.

Mickey Rooney at the Empire Theatre in 2008, with his wife Jan and Eastenders stars Steve McFadden and Barbara Windsor. Rooney thought he's seen it all until he came to Sunderland.

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Perhaps all four are possessed of a nine-octave range that served only to complement the professionals. Or perhaps not. But it does seem odd that they were told to shut it during this particular show.

I would have thought that certain productions such as Mama Mia!, We Will Rock You and the like would lend themselves to, if not openly encourage, audience engagement. If the singer on the stage begins to rhythmically clap hands, then they want you to join in.

Of course, it very much depends on the production. No one wants the row behind to caterwaul their way through The Barber of Seville. But this was Motown.

Similarly, you don’t want anyone competing with a comedian (hecklers are never funny), or reciting a soliloquy verbatim while Hamlet runs through his options.

Yet in its rightful place, audience participation is a wonderful thing. Without it I would have been deprived of what I consider to be one of theatre’s greatest moments.

When Mickey Rooney starred in Cinderella at the Empire, I watched the pantomime a row in front of a seven year-old gentleman who became highly emotionally involved. Spoiler alert.

The youngster’s beloved Cinderella (Michelle Heaton) was cruelly mistreated by her step-sisters. It isn’t a terribly PC thing to say, but these step-sisters were really rather ugly and actually quite masculine.

They had already deliberately incited the Wearside crowd by wearing hideous designer black and white striped dresses, which they claimed to be: “The latest Alain Sheareur” amid a good round booing.

The little ball of hostility and mucus behind me was enduring an outraged sense of local pride at this point. But he was further scandalised when the handsome prince was looking for a woman who took a specific size in glass slipper, as she would qualify for his hand in marriage.

One of the ugly sisters, somewhat optimistically, put the slipper over what was demonstrably a plastic foot.

She then declared: “It fits! It fits! I shall marry the prince. It fits!”

This was more than one seven year-old could tolerate; and he exploded.

“Nar it doesn’t; yer s**g!

And Mickey Rooney thought he’d heard it all.

There is overlap, rather than direct correlation, between this story and that of the Motown Four. But let us say that, for certain productions it does seem best to let an audience do what comes naturally.

And surely they weren’t the only ones singing.