Given all of the challenges over the three years since the pandemic hit, the last thing that the theatrical community needs is a series of negative stories that are likely to scare off potential audience members.

It is bad enough that ticket prices had become unaffordable, producers are, of necessity, generally programming more conservatively and there remains a risk of catching COVID-19 in busy theatres where protection has long been forgotten.

Add in congestion charging and travelling problems generated by poorly maintained services and exacerbated by strikes and the outlook looks bleak.

Throughout all of those woes, the media is now in a frenzy over bad behaviour in theatres, which was the subject of a column only a few weeks ago but seems to be getting significantly worse.

This month, BECTU, the union covering front-of-house and other public-facing staff, has issued a cry for help. Reading their powerful message, this seems perfectly reasonable since so many hard-working and dedicated theatre workers are now at risk of insult and assault every time they sign on for a shift.

A recent press release depressingly observed that, “a new survey from theatre union BECTU has uncovered the extent of anti-social behaviour from theatre audiences, with many respondents agreeing it has worsened and become more extreme in nature following the pandemic.

“From public urination and physical assaults to verbal abuse and intimidation, more than 1,500 people working in theatrical venues across the UK shared their experiences of anti-social behaviour. Responses came from those predominantly working in front of house, hospitality, box office, and stage door roles, as well as technical roles like sound and lighting.

“90 per cent of respondents reported having directly experienced or witnessed poor audience behaviour, and more than 70 per cent felt that the issue is worse post-pandemic. Nearly half of respondents said they had thought about leaving the industry as a result.”

To bring the figures into perspective:

  • “Almost 30 per cent of respondents have been involved in or witnessed an incident where a venue had to call the police
  • Nearly 20 per cent have feared for their safety on at least one occasion and 20 per cent reported negative impacts on their mental health
  • More than 80 per cent felt that people working in a customer-facing role need more training and support to deal with poor audience behaviour
  • 78 per cent thought more external security was necessary to help deal with audience behaviour
  • 45 per cent have considered leaving the industry due to poor audience behaviour”

What some may sound like a theoretical problem can be encapsulated by events at a recent production of The Bodyguard in Manchester, where staff needed bodyguards of their own. Unbelievably, not only did something akin to a riot start in the theatre but police were called in and the issues were so great that the performance was called to a halt and never restarted.

Sadly, you have to think that anyone somewhat dubious about a night out at the theatre would be put off by the threat of risk to life and limb during an entertainment that might be curtailed before reaching its joyful climax. It is very hard to understand the mentality of those who appear to regard theatres as large-scale karaoke machines.

Apparently, the fashion for those attending jukebox musicals is to get blind drunk before arriving (not even having the decency to spend lots of money at the theatre’s own bar), before dancing around throughout the performance and “singing” throughout.

It is possible that they regard musicals as akin to rock concerts. If that is the case, then there is a relatively simple solution. Jack up the volume to the kind of level that will induce bleeding from the ears and then the little darlings can sing away to their hearts’ delight.

This will wreck the evening for anyone who cares about the show as a show, but some might argue that the plots of most jukebox musicals are so weak this won’t be a material impediment to enjoyment.

It may just be a function of the insularity of the UK media, but this doesn’t seem to be a problem elsewhere. As with English football fans, citizens here seem to have a particular penchant for causing trouble for the sake of it, perhaps in the knowledge that a libertarian society will let them get away with it.

This may seem unkind, but it is very easy to conjure up a vision of consequences for similar behaviour to take place in some American cities. Then, there would be a serious concern that someone might whip out a concealed semiautomatic weapon and mow down well-meaning front of house staff. At least in the wild West, they have the perfect solution. That would be to mount gun emplacements by every usher’s seat, from which they could give as good as they got.

In this country, you have to fear that the milder but equally undesirable equivalent is the nightclub bouncer. It is terrifying to think that the future of theatre might include highly muscled men with earpieces prowling the aisles, poised to throw miscreants out on their ears.

What is the world coming to and how do we get out of this vicious circle?