Entertainment

‘We ask people to leave at least once a week’: Is the COVID recovery putting ‘profit over safety’ at West End theatres?

Front-of-house workers at leading West End theatres have told Sky News audiences have “forgotten how to behave” – claiming assaults and abuse are a common occurrence.

Agreeing to talk to us anonymously, we heard accounts of drunk audience members projectile vomiting in the auditorium, used condoms being found in the stalls, and ambulances being called to treat bleeding audience members after fights.

One theatre worker – who was fearful speaking out could cost him his job – said he was concerned that top management at some venues are putting “profit over safety”.

He told us how, despite a life-long love of theatre, his job has become intolerable after the COVID pandemic.

“I had a friend who is barely 5ft 2in punched in the face by a man who was 6ft 9in. She’s in her 20s.”

He said he was assaulted by a man who had arrived late and wouldn’t accept that he had to wait for an appropriate moment in the show to take his seat.

“I’d moved myself in front of the doors and he basically slammed me against the wall and then walked in, calling me a f****** w***** for doing my job … security pulled him out and he was made to apologise … but he was allowed to watch the show. I’ve just been assaulted and I’m shaken but that’s a common experience in the West End.”

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As well as hearing countless examples of how audience members are being routinely drunk and disrespectful, another worker even showed Sky News one theatre group’s internal incident reports.

Audiences behaving badly: An epidemic of anti-social behaviour in theatres, concerts and gigs

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Theatregoers thrown out as crowd boos

“We have to ask people to leave probably at least once a week,” they explained.

There’s a huge amount of people that come to the theatre and it’s just a magical experience for them” we were told – “but there is this small minority of people that have forgotten how to behave”.

Workers told us how incidents are more frequent at jukebox musicals that clearly pitch their tickets at stag and hen dos – advertising “a raucous night out”.

They bring in the crowds and the crowds spend money … there are offers at the bar and it’s money after a lockdown … we’ve got to do bag checks, ticket checks, get them to their seats before the show starts and they all want to go to the bar. I’ve had bar staff being shouted at … some horrible abuse goes on.”

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London’s Shaftsbury Avenue

As an example of how little audience members seem to care, one theatre worker recounted: “I brought the person into the foyer and explained that we had received complaints about them being noisy, that they’d been vaping, to which they replied ‘So what?'”

Speaking to Sky News back in October, musical composer Stephen Schwartz – who has worked in theatre for over five decades on countless Broadway and West End hits from Godspell to Wicked – spoke of how mobile phones are becoming a real problem.

“What’s exasperating is the cell phones, people being on their phones and you want to say to them, you know, just go out in the lobby and text on your phone and let everybody else get on and watch the show!”

Read more:
Police called to ‘disturbance’ at Manchester Palace Theatre
Theatre slams abusive audience behaviour
Theatre staff ‘fearing for their safety’ at work after rise in audience anti-social behaviour

Stephen Schwartz participates in the curtain call during the 20th anniversary performance of "Wicked" on Monday, Oct. 30, 2023, at Gershwin Theater in New York. (Photo by CJ Rivera/Invision/AP)
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Composer Stephen Schwartz Pic: AP

Theatre union BECTU recently surveyed its members about this. Some 90% of the 15,000 theatre staff who responded said they regularly witnessed bad behaviour with half saying they were thinking about quitting as a result.

Head of BECTU Philippa Childs said some of the stories they heard were “quite incredible”.

“People being threatened with violence, people being told somebody would be waiting for them outside of the theatre at the end of the night … the results were really shocking and what we’ve been saying to theatres is that they need to take some action to make sure their staff are protected.”

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Audience members kicked out of theatre

While Ms Childs says it’s understandable that theatres want to make up for the earnings they lost during COVID lockdowns, she wants to “make sure theatres aren’t encouraging people to arrive tanked-up.”

“Theatres were the last to open so it’s inevitable that they want to try to claw back some of that lost revenue by selling more alcohol, but I think that is a contributing factor.”

None of the theatre owners Sky News approached wanted to comment for this piece.

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