To Stand Or Not To Stand

Posted on 12 March 2015

Dame Helen Mirren’s comments about Broadway theatregoers cheering her performance in The Audience (now at the Apollo starring Kristin Scott Thomas) more enthusiastically that those in the West End did, throws a spotlight on who has got their reactions to a show right — the reserved Brits or our over-the-top American cousins? Or . . . are audiences in the West End becoming more like those on Broadway?

Nowhere is any difference more marked than with the standing ovation. Everyone on their feet is pretty much the norm on the Great White Way, while London audiences are still harder to get out of their seats.
A couple of years ago actress Miriam Margolyes openly chastised a woman in the front row for not standing at the end of her Dickens show in Vancouver, such has this become the norm across the pond.
And there’s the story of Dustin Hoffman, who when appearing in London in the Merchant of Venice, constantly bemoaned the lack of a standing ovation. The run happened to coincide with the day Sir Laurence Olivier died and director Peter Hall suggested it might be appropriate if he said a few words. When the cast had taken their bows Hoffman stepped forward and as soon Olivier’s name was uttered the audience rose as one. After the show Hoffman reputedly turned to co-star Leigh Lawson and said, “Now I get it. To get a standing ovation in this country, first you have to f****** die”.
And another American star playing in London recently left a very bad taste with their urging of the audience to stand, however playfully it was done.
Now, I go to the theatre a lot. Most of it I like and a lot of it I really love. But I do think the standing ovation is becoming overused and as a result being devalued as an expression of appreciation.
How many of us have been intimidated into standing because those around us are? Or stood up just so that we can get a better view due to people on the row in front being among a handful standing? And we’ve all witnessed that embarrassing scenario of the little bippity bobbity jig when a person realises they are the only one on their feet and become stuck in a should-I-go-or-should-I-stay? no-man’s land.
You can imagine the conversation backstage:
“I think they liked it, don’t you, darling?”
'Oh yes, I think they liked it, but that one chap at the front of the dress, he REALLY liked it.”
“Really? I was worried that he hated it so much that he was about to jump”
And sorry guys, but first nights don’t count. Your mates are in and they love you. Plus they’re taking out insurance that you’ll do the same for them one day.

It’s easy to get caught up in special one-off moments, of course. If I’m at the 25th Gala Performance of Miss Saigon at the Prince Edward Theatre and Lea Salonga comes on, then I’m up. You just try stopping me if you think you’re hard enough. (I wasn’t there, by the way. That’s why most of the 80,000+ YouTube hits are probably down to me).

Theatre has moved me, made me laugh and made me cry. I mostly applaud enthusiastically at the sheer wonder of it all. So cast members, just because I’m not standing, doesn’t mean you weren’t good and didn’t take me on that, dare I say it . . . emotional journey. I probably thought you were terrific, but just imagine how terrific you’ll have been when we see each other again and I’m up on tippy toe and cheering like a maniac.