Lloyd Evans

Three cheers for booing in the theatre

Three cheers for booing in the theatre
Interior of Drury Lane Theatre. From R. Ackermann’s Microcosm of London, 1808. Credit: Bridgeman Images
Text settings

In the theatre, to boo is taboo. There was an exception last week when Andrew Lloyd Webber’s name was booed by the crowd at the final performance of his musical Cinderella after a letter written by him to the cast, in which he called the show a ‘costly mistake’, was read out on stage. But that’s rare. Outside of panto season, the West End generally prefers a play to be received in a sepulchral hush.

It’s curious that booing is absent from modern theatre, because it’s as old as European drama. The earliest reports of audience booing were recorded at the annual festival of Dionysus in Athens where playwrights competed to win prizes for their efforts. The verdict was delivered by the crowds who howled (that is, booed) at the worst dramas and cheered for the best.

Nowadays we save our boos for politicians. The Platinum Jubilee sparked a new interest in the ramifications of booing. Nearly all the guests arriving at St Paul’s for the thanksgiving service were cheered by the crowd, but it was the negative heckles that got the most attention. Boris Johnson was booed. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex attracted a few derogatory noises too. The televised recordings of these honking sounds were repeated and commented on endlessly. It fostered a whole new field of expertise: booing analysis. Self-styled consultants clashed over the intensity and duration of the boos aimed at Boris and made comparisons between his reception and the jeers directed at Harry and Meghan.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex at St Paul's Cathedral (Getty Images)

Some claimed that the boos aimed at Boris had been suppressed by the BBC to give him an easy ride. Others insisted that dark forces within the Beeb had cranked up the sound to make the Prime Minister appear more unpopular. It was an amazing way to discuss current affairs: a few groans and catcalls from a handful of protestors were transformed into a debate about Boris’s political longevity.

And yet no one boos at the theatre, no matter how awful the show. Audiences have developed alternative ways to express their dissatisfaction. Coughing is the commonest method. At any revival of a ‘memory play’ by Harold Pinter, at least a quarter of the crowd seems to develop an instant chest infection or tickly throat. These discomforts vanish mysteriously at the start of the interval, only to recur during act two.

More subtle options are available. Noisily turning the pages of the programme tells your neighbours that you’re unimpressed by the antics on stage. Fiddling with sweets or rattling your ice cubes has the same effect. Snoring is sometimes heard in the stalls – surely the most lethal form of theatre review.

Most folk who dislike a play are polite enough to withdraw quietly at the interval. However, an irked and fractious show-off can perform a mega-flounce in the middle of the action. The beauty of this form of ‘booing’ is that it’s silent but visible to every-one in the theatre, including the actors. The most recent exodus I witnessed was at the National Theatre’s scruffy and chaotic update of Wuthering Heights. At different stages of the first act, I saw three women, each on their own, making for the escape hatch. And the entire crowd could tell that the jail-breakers weren’t coming back: they’d taken their handbags with them. Doubtless many others longed to join them in a general stampede.

The tendency of audiences to fidget and yawn during shows suggests that it’s natural to express your distaste for a lousy performance. This simple human desire might be harnessed usefully. If play-goers were to download some sort of ovation app, unique to each show, they could register their admiration or disgust in the course of the evening. (The cast, for obvious reasons, would be banned from subscribing.)

Or perhaps a more direct method might be tried. Each armrest could be fitted with a big red button marked ‘boo-klaxon’. That would certainly put an end to most of the conceptualist drivel in our subsidised theatres. Then again, it might make producers more timid as they strove to mount the safest and blandest shows they could find.

We are confused about booing. We enjoy the sound because it represents a revolt against authority, against celebrities who misbehave, and against poor taste. Yet we also consider it discourteous and even vulgar. One genre has found the solution. Each year, Eurovision gathers the worst performers alive and encourages them to embarrass themselves on TV. And no one boos. We just hear ‘nul points’. That says it all.