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Hearing the show

It is, obviously, a wonderful thing for the industry to be finding ways of encouraging into its auditoria the very young, people with mental health problems and/or disabilities, elderly folk with dementia and anyone else for whom theatre might seem dauntingly off limits.

“Relaxed” performances are now a standard fixture of the run of nearly every show. It means, for example, that nobody minds if a baby cries or an elderly person doesn’t keep her voice down or a person on the autism spectrum is frightened to sit down and stay put. And that is absolutely right.

On the other hand – and of course there has to be one – the whole point of theatre is for the audience to hear and respond to the sounds (voice, music etc) being made by the performers as well as watching what’s going on. If you  – as someone who doesn’t have special needs – can’t hear the show because of auditorium noise then you might as well stay at home and save the price of your ticket. It’s a tricky balance.

Tom Service, recently devoted his weekly Radio 3 programme, The Listening Service, to this topic  with regard to classical music concerts. Normally I admire Mr Service’s work but this time he really was spouting a load of nonsense. I don’t care whether or not audiences chatted acceptably through concerts in the past. In 2019, if I’ve paid for a ticket I want to hear every single note without anyone hearing anyone chatting, allowing a phone to ring, rustling a crisp packet or trying to quieten a restive child. And the same thing applies to drama – I want to hear every word and every sound which is part of the show. And I don’t want to hear anything else. It’s one of the things I simply don’t understand about pop concerts. Why scream, shriek, cheer and shout so that you can’t hear what – presumably – you paid for? Barmy.

Michael Volpe, who runs Opera Holland Park, complained about this recently. Some mothers brought their babies to a relaxed performance of an OHP show and that, obviously, was fine but he was irritated by their also gossiping to each other and using their phones. “We’re relaxed but not that relaxed” he said. And I have every sympathy with him. Such behaviour is disrespectful to the performers and infuriating for paying punters who are trying to listen to, and concentrate on, what’s going on. It’s also giving the babies and young children (who don’t miss much) all the wrong messages.

So by all means let’s go on running relaxed performances for people who need them but at the same time we shouldn’t lose sight of the need to promote co-operative, compliant, appropriate behaviour from most audience members at most performances, please.  Meanwhile I hope my sitting quietly and attentively in theatres and concert halls isn’t spoiling anyone else’s pleasure. Because it sure does when it’s the other way round.

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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