Tom Sutcliffe: Comic timing's no laughing matter

The week in culture

We often hear, from dramatists and actors, about the magical togetherness that theatre can create in an audience – those special moments which are the product of a live performance meeting collective attendance, and which can't easily be replicated in any other art form. This, it's frequently implied, is theatre's sacred edge over some of its competitors. So, while you can react in synchrony with others in a cinema, the film can't react back.

It can't catch a mood of an audience and amplify it. What isn't as often discussed, though, is the downside of that theatrical virtue – the fact that when we stop being individuals and behave as a collective organism bad things can happen as well as good. I don't want to over-dramatise this. A London theatre audience can be an unlovely spectacle at times, but I don't think I've ever seen one turn into a mob. And while I've certainly been at plays that stroked an audience's sense of self-regard, I can't recall ever seeing one that attempted to co-opt them for a sinister purpose. Trying to bump up the sales figures for the cast-recording of Love Never Dies really doesn't count.

There can be something uncomfortable about the obedience of an audience, though, that biddable willingness to respond to theatrical cues, even if the cue doesn't really correspond to anything. It's most obvious with laughter and there was a good example of it the other night at 13, the first night of Mike Bartlett's play about a messianic figure agitating for social change. In one scene, an old lady called Edith talks about a recent case brought against her for ramming a shopping trolley through a bank's front window. Her lawyer tells her he's managed to get them to drop the case, at which point she sets off on a long tirade about the terrible service that had provoked her attack in the first place. "It's shit," she concludes. "It's a shit bank." And, not entirely surprisingly, the audience roars. Two reliable buttons have been pressed. An old lady is using bad language – which almost always makes audiences chuckle condescendingly – and someone is having a go at a bank. Then, after a pause, she names the offending institution. "It was NatWest, if you want to know," she says. And the audience laughed even louder.

I was a little puzzled by this. Could there really be that many disgruntled NatWest account holders at the first night? And if not, what was so galvanising about this moment? And to that there were two answers, I think. The first was that we don't often hear brand names in the theatre, so there was a tiny sense of transgression there. And the second was that there wasn't really anything very galvanising at all. It isn't that NatWest particularly deserves our opprobrium right now or has a particularly funny name. It was just that the line had the shape and timing of a punchline and the audience understood what was expected of it. I can't be sure, of course. If you don't laugh when others do there's always a chance that you're out of step, not them. It had happened to me a few days earlier at April De Angelis's play Jumpy, where the comic rehearsal of a burlesque routine had reduced an entire theatre to honking helplessness. All I could see was the psychological implausibility of the moment and waited in silence for it to pass. On that occasion, there was no doubting the audience's sincerity but in 13 it was hard not to feel that being in step was the relevant metaphor. Would any of those people have laughed aloud if they'd watched this scene alone? I doubt it. They laughed because the play had instructed them to.

That needn't always be pernicious, of course. It's one of the joys of a stage comedy that an audience can whip up its own momentum – as we all give each other permission to laugh. But you may find yourself wondering later exactly what it was you were laughing at – and asking yourself whether civil disobedience shouldn't have its place in an auditorium too. The line between a community and a herd isn't always easy to see before you step over it.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve