I’ve been having a right old moan with friends over the last couple of weeks about people making far too much noise in the theatre these days. It’s a pet peeve as old as the hills, but there does seem to have been a great deal more coughing, spluttering and chomping even than usual.

So it could have been fate that caused me to be overcome with a persistent tickly cough when I sat down in the Playhouse to watch a recent dance performance. It turned out to be a true test of my commitment to theatre etiquette. A lesser audience member would just whoop away, regardless of the distraction caused to performer and crowd. I decided I had to be a bit smarter than this. During the interval, a fellow critic lamented how he was so pissed off by a trio of girls munching crisps behind him he was threatening to sneak off and sit in a different empty seat on his return (he did).

First of all, I tried to get the coughing fit out of the way when the music was especially loud and attempted to stop when it paused. Still not great, but I figured this was far preferable to blurting all over the show.

However, one little outburst was not enough and, to my horror, I realised there was more to come. I tried holding my breath, and even considered legging it out of the auditorium. But ultimately, just sat there, eyes watering, silently convulsing for ten minutes until the choreography was over, hoping I wouldn’t end up going down in history for being the first person to actually, literally explode in a theatre.

The Philharmonic Hall has long provided cough sweets in the foyer for people to take, knowing full well the problem of a phlegmy audience in a concert hall known for its superior acoustics. A great deal of people, of course, couldn’t seem to give much of a toss, the Empire’s recent run of The Phantom of the Opera being a case in point. Despite being one of the most lavish, booming, and acoustically striking productions to hit that stage in many a year, you simply don’t notice how many dramatic pauses and quiet reflective moments there are in that show until seemingly half the punters in the circle decide to honk their way through it.

Once one person lets rip, others seem to think it gives them all the excuse they need to have a go as well, and it begins – coughing, ripping open crinkly sweet packets, rifling through bags, checking phones, even taking pictures. Before you know it, it’s a rally of splutters and yelps stopping you getting all teary-eyed during The Music of the Night. What can you do, though? I nearly got punched in the face once for shushing a tired and emotional woman during a production of Grease.

It’s just as bad in a small venue as a big one. In fringe theatres, a massive distraction can occur when audiences think it is okay to start talking during the scene changes, and this happens often. Not a whispered “well, Bob’s doing better than I expected”, but back to the full volume conversation they were having before the lights went down in the first place. Once, I saw a play that had to completely stop while noisy punters were physically turfed out, yelling as they went about the injustice, and how they had “every right” to behave as they had been.

During Phantom, a bloke two rows in front – too far away to smack about the head, but too near not to completely ruin the show – fell asleep in act one, remained comatose through the interval, and loudly snored throughout the second act.

So we were in the cheap seats – but they actually weren’t cheap, and if it was my other half who had blown the best part of £50 on having a fancy yet inappropriate nap, ruining the evening for all in close proximity, I’d have died of shame. At one point, before the snoring started, the guy was so strangely slumped and so still I thought he actually might have died.

The Good Samaritan in me wanted to ask if he was alright, but in a twist of Seinfeldian logic I figured if he wasn’t, the resulting rumpus would stop the show entirely. This would have been more of a bummer than sitting two rows behind a corpse for the final hour, so I decided I wasn’t going to be the one to point it out.

From which two things could possibly be concluded: never get between a woman and her romantic weepie – and, if you are going to be a noisy pain in the arse in the theatre, die quietly.

  • jo

    love this article – my bete noir is the folk who pay the outrageous sums demanded to see a band, then drink and talk their way through almost every song (and get up to go for a resultant pee every 2 minutes too). MEN/Elbow viciously spoilt by a couple in front, shouting above the songs to make themselves heard!! Had to move eventually to a. avoid noise and b. avoid punching them….*loud sigh`*

  • Sara

    I have a little sympathy for those with bad coughs (given that you often buy tickets weeks/months in advance for the theatre), but I have no tolerance for casual chatters.

    In terms of theatre and cinema, I think venues should set up special nights for the well-behaved. Potential punters would have to have a special card that guaranteed they were contientious citizens that would not talk/eat/sleep/use their phones during a production.

    Can someone make this happen for me please?

  • Sara

    I have a little sympathy for those with bad coughs (given that you often buy tickets weeks/months in advance for the theatre), but I have no tolerance for casual chatters.

    In terms of theatre and cinema, I think venues should set up special nights for the well-behaved. Potential punters would have to have a special card that guaranteed they were conscientious citizens that would not talk/eat/sleep/use their phones during a production.

    Can someone make this happen for me please?