Once, during a particularly bad piece of theatre, a critic friend of mine, who was bored past the point of tears, decided to count the number of ceiling tiles in the auditorium. I can’t remember the exact amount of tiles, but it was an impressive number – it even made it into his review – but more recently, Lyn Gardner’s latest and excellent piece on the unique agony of watching bad theatre has got me thinking about how to survive a night of terrible theatrics.
I’ve walked out of show twice. The first time was during a Lithuanian production that was performed during the Baltic Theatre Festival in Riga, Latvia in 2011. It involved a lot of shouting. A LOT OF SHOUTING. At the interval, the group I was in met up, pulled the similar unimpressed expression, and made the unanimous decision to leave.
The second time was during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2012, and that was because the show was awful, and I mean, really awful. The only thing going for it was that it was dinner theatre, so at least I wasn’t hungry, but after two hours of cringeworthy attempts at comedy, and after realising that the show was running half an hour longer than it said it would, and after making eyes at the exit for, oh, most of the ‘performance’, me and my editor decided to make a run for it. Once we made our Sheepish Great Escape, a strange thing happened, other people followed our lead, perhaps buoyed by the realisation that yes, it was possible to leave before the end.
But in four years of semi-professional reviewing and six years of reviewing in total, why have I only ever walked out of two shows? Am I too trusting? Am I too optimistic? Or am I worried that my credibility could be questioned if I leave a show too early?
If I’m honest, it’s a mix of all three. While there is nothing that can physically stop me from leaving, bar being in the middle of the aisle, surrounded on either side by audience members with bad knees and an even worse attitude, the thought of leaving the theatre too early fills me with a kind of dread. In some ways, I must be a sucker for punishment, as I often find myself thinking that “Oh, it’ll get better in the second act…” and then when the inevitable terrible second act begins, I curse my eternal optimism, and gaze longingly at the door.
I can remember once, sitting next to the then-boyfriend of a friend of mine, during a particularly tedious production of Testing the Echo at the Traverse Theatre. I was fidgeting, desperate for it to end, and I found to my surprise that he was too. I longed to turn round and whisper to him that it was ok, I was also finding it really rather dull, but I was bound by two things: politeness and the reviewer’s code. I’ve never forgotten that feeling of knowing I had a kindred spirit in the auditorium, but I couldn’t tell them, so we had to sit there, in silent discomfort.
So, what is it about live performance that makes it difficult for me and indeed, others, to walk out? While I usually attend the theatre in my role as a critic, which can be pretty binding, theatre walkouts in general, as far as I have seen, tend to be few and far between. Is this need to endure bad theatre a typically British phenomenon? Are we worried about offending those on stage and our contemporaries in the audience?
It’s easy to walk out of a cinema, you can leave a gig without too many problems, some people like heckling both good and bad comedians, although I’ve never understood why, and pressing stop on a bad DVD, before using it as a coaster until the end of time seems perfectly logical. But with theatre, why can’t I feel more confident about walking out of a bad show? Because I’m there to do a job, not a well-paid job, but a job none the less.
I think one of the greatest untruths about critics is that we love a bad show. While negative reviews can be easier to write, no critic I know would willingly invest their time in a poor production. If we’re going to review a show, any show in fact, we want it to be good, and if it isn’t good, then we want it to be short.
That’s all we want, or even need, we are a simple breed, really, because time is really important to us. Those few hours we spend squirming in the auditorium could be spent writing, with our families, pitching to editors, and dare I say it, at this time of year, Christmas shopping.
However, time is important to everyone, so, have you ever watched a piece of theatre until the bitter end? Or have you walked out voicing your disgust? I could use a few tips on what to do, or how to cope, so let me know your advice in the comments.