The UK theatre scene is the last refuge of unnecessary etiquette

There is a heightened sense of what is and what isn't acceptable among theatre-goers

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I have often worried that my antipathy towards theatre as an art form marks me out as an irredeemable Philistine. I can recognise excellence on the stage, and I have given myself every chance to find pleasure and intellectual fulfilment in a visit to the theatre. But one's heart never lies, and my heart has, I'm afraid, never been in it.

I can't help it. As soon as the curtain rises and the actors start acting, a voice inside my head starts screaming: “STOP IT! JUST TALK NORMALLY! THIS IS EMBARASSING!” Tell me I can't be alone in thinking this. Or am I the only person in the world who finds the manners and artifice of staged drama an uncomfortable watch? From time to time, propelled by friends' recommendations or critical acclaim, I essay another excursion to the theatre in the hope that something will click and this huge gap in my artistic appreciation will be filled.

On top of all this is the feeling that, in contrast to other genres, there is a strict convention to which the audience must adhere. This is not conducive to engendering a sense of relaxation, and who goes out willingly for an evening of hard work?  Yesterday, a survey conducted by Ticketmaster into the habits of theatregoers suggested that, in the drive to encourage younger people to the theatre, established codes of behaviour have broken down, much to the chagrin of the traditionalists.

Dress has become more casual - until relatively recently, a lounge suit was the minimum required for a night in the stalls - and this sop to the modern world has offended some. The theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph yesterday conveyed his displeasure about a fellow critic turning up to a first night wearing a T-shirt: I couldn't work out, however, whether it was the T-shirt itself, or its message - “Still Hate Thatcher” - that offended him more.

Of course, in any public gathering - a train, an auditorium, even a lift - it is reasonable to expect a level of behaviour that doesn't offend others. It's just that, for some reason - perhaps the inherent seriousness of the genre - there is a heightened sense of what is and what isn't acceptable in the theatre. In the cinema, I don't think anyone notices or cares when a fellow audience member takes a sneaky look at his or her mobile phone (this is 2013, after all, and we are all so important that we can't be uncontactable for a minute). In the theatre, however, the tut-tutting is almost audible.

And heaven help someone who has forgotten to switch off their mobile. James McAvoy, Kevin Spacey, Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig are among those who have stepped out of character to berate someone in the audience whose ringtone has interrupted a performance. It's not only because I am terrified that this will happen to me that makes me resistant to the appeal of the live drama. Maybe one day I'll get with the programme, and I'll feel so comfortable at the theatre that I'll be able to sit there patiently, not look at my mobile...and fall asleep. You're right. I am a Philistine.