I have a confession to make – I’ve developed a habit of walking out of shows before they finish. Am I a bad person?
For many years I was far too English to even contemplate leaving before the end of any film, play or concert. If I’d already paid to see something I would damn well sit it out and get my money’s worth, even if it was excruciatingly boring or deeply unpleasant. In my time I’ve endured complete hell on the off chance that it might get better towards the end (it generally doesn’t), trying to convince myself that all art is worth giving a go, and that you can learn as much from a bad performance as you can from a good one.
But then I had an epiphany – during the interval of a particularly taxing play my sophisticated, theatre-going friend informed me in no uncertain terms that we would not be going back in for the second half. So we didn’t. A minor miracle would have had to occurred for it pick up in the second act, and as my friend pointed out ‘they shouldn’t play games with the audience – if they don’t grab your attention in the first half, why do they deserve your attention for the second?’ It was my first walk-out and I found it quite thrilling, although in truth it was relatively mild – we left during the interval, it was a big theatre, no-one would know. I’ve got naughtier since.
In Edinburgh, my friends and I barely survived 15 minutes of Dyslexia – The Musikal before making a mad dash past other audience members for the exit. Now, I’m generally not very fussy, but the least I expect from a musical is that the cast can hold a tune. Apparently this was not a requirement for this cringingly awful piece, where the lead characters shrieked into microphones while the rest of the cast flung themselves around behind them. After the opening number I genuinely found myself looking at my watch wondering how much longer we had to go. I felt a little guilty in case the cast saw us leave because it must be demoralising, but time in Edinburgh is short and precious, and the truth was we would rather stand out in the pouring rain than have our ears and sense of political correctness assaulted any longer.
Soon after that I made a premature departure from a promenade piece, which was by far the hardest of all things to leave. In fact, they told us before it started that leaving before it finished wouldn’t be possible, but we did it anyway, smiling apologetically at the guide and skulking out between scenes. To be honest I think they tell people that to keep them there against their will. I got the impression it was all building up to something spectacular, but when I realised that I just didn’t care what that something was, I thought it was about time to give up.
So after one cheeky transgression it now seems like this is a full blown addiction. Once you realise there is nothing stopping you leaving, a piece of bad theatre becomes a whole new experience. No longer is it something to be endured, suddenly it’s a game – you give yourself time limits for how long you’ll wait for it to improve, or you try judging the best moment to leave. (Generally the interval is the kindest, but the ovation at the end of a song is quite a good cover. Even a renegade like me still can’t bring myself to go mid-scene or when the audience is so small I will clearly be missed, but never say never.) The fact I’ve paid for something doesn’t even bother me now – they’ve already got my money, I might as well get my time back.
Of course it’s only fair that as an actor I also accept if people chose to leave my performances. If they do so quietly and politely in the interval then who can blame them? I’m not a complete sadist – if someone isn’t enjoying it I would rather they leave than suffered further. The only rule I have set myself is that I will never leave something that I’m reviewing, although I’m told there have been some critics who don’t even mind about that…
What do you think? Is leaving unforgiveable, or is it a perfectly rational response to something you are not enjoying? Are we generally too polite as audiences, suffering for the sake of art or the feelings of performers you will never meet? I’m quite proud of my new found bravery, I just hope the rest of you don’t think less of me…