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Over ovation inflation

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There was a timely piece the other day in the New York Times in which critic Ben Brantley reported the rare and wonderful event of a sitting ovation at the end of a concert performance of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

The reception was by no means muted. The audience whooped and roared and wolf-whistled, apparently, but remained rooted to their seats. Oh happy days, when such occurrences were everyday, and certainly every night. The standing ovation, as Brantley says, has become a reflexive social gesture, like a handshake, or worse; "it's like having sex on a first date, because you think it's expected of you."

Of course it's all New York's fault to start with, and it's been going on for 20 years, this jumping up in a huddle at the end of the most mediocre of musicals or catchpenny of comedies. And it's all to do with proving to yourself that you've had a good time rather than showing genuine appreciation for the actors' efforts.

My first experience of it was at a mid-week matinee in New York in the first week of La Cage aux Folles. This was in the same season as Dustin Hoffman's Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Liza Minelli (sometimes) in The Rink, Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons in Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing (an outstanding production by Mike Nichols) and the monster first staging of 42nd Street.

Ticket prices had gone through the roof in a big way, touching 50 dollars, and the added expenditure forced Broadway theatregoers to get as much bang for their buck as possible, and this meant a standing ovation. The s.o. became part of the deal.

I can't pinpoint exactly when the s.o. caught on here, but it was certainly a few years later, probably when New York investors started infiltrating the West End in search of the new Cats, or the next Alan Bennett at the National. The phenomenon has had a deleterious knock-on effect in our conversation about the theatre, too.

Just as most shows are worth two and a half or three stars, a similar sort of pressure on critics to justify their existence means that they fall for the four star trick far too often; who wants to read a three star review, they say? Well, I would suggest that most of the reviews worth reading, and most of the shows worth reading about, are in fact three star jobbies.

Similarly, producers think they've bought a pig in a poke if that first night crowd aren't on their feet the minute the curtain comes in. And sitting in the middle of a row when this happens is no place to be for any sane or sensible person, let alone a critic.   

It's alright if you're at the end of a row. Then you can sidle to the side and witness the curtain calls while leaning nonchalantly against the theatre wall, thereby implying that all this s.o. mullarkey is not really your bag.

The only routine standing ovations that are justifiable are at the Proms or the Globe, and that's because the audience is already standing anyway. What I dislike about them most is that if you do not wish to stand and applaud you are somehow stigmaised by those who do as some sort of snob or killjoy. And, good heavens, we can't have critics tarred with that brush, can we?

Some years ago I'd sprained my ankle very badly but had hobbled somehow to the theatre to see Maureen Lipman in her Joyce Grenfell solo show. I was therefore genuinely immune to the demands of the s.o. at the end. But there was no escape.

At the interval, Maureen Lipman's mum turned round and said to me, "You're not laughing very much," to which I'm afraid I heard myself reply, "Well, it's not very funny, is it?"

But that was a response to her line, not a reponse to the show which was, in the end, fairly funny and rather good. Except I then went and spoilt everything by writing in my review, not unreasonably, I thought, that Lipman brought her own brand of Jewish sensibility to bear on the very English upper middle-class glamour of the great Grenfell.

And that led to a bit of a bust-up with Maureen accusing me of anti-Semitism in the Jewish Chronicle and promising to pour a plate of spaghetti over my head when she next saw me in a restaurant.

So I stopped going out for a while, but I think the fracas blew over, as they always do, and for some time now Maureen has neither assaulted me with a pasta carbonara nor even cut me dead in the street.

I see that her recent appearance in Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park has received standing ovations and rave reviews in the provinces. There's no announcement of a West End transfer yet, but I think I'd better start practising my s.o. (as opposed to my s.o.b.) routine just to be on the safe side.


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