I don’t even know who said it and certainly can’t be arsed to trawl the BBC iPlayer, but it was the Graham Norton Show. As usual, there were a few extremely prominent actors seated on the sofa, and one started talking about performing on stage and said “Don’t ever go to see a play at matinees!” to appreciative laughter from his fellow Thespians. Then I read the (must-read) The Rules of Acting by Michael Simkins, a book I annoyed my wife with by constantly reading funny bits aloud. He talks of actors going to a matinee “on leaden feet.”
I’ve often commented on Bath and Salisbury matinees, and there have been wonderful moments from the older audience members. This is an extract from my review of This Happy Breed:
“Bath matinee interjections”
With such a percentage of elderly people, the audience interjections (always in piercingly loud RP voices) are one of the treats of visiting the Theatre Royal. In Act 2. Queenie creeps out of the family home, leaving a note. As Snoopy said so often, it was a dark and stormy night. The projected time pointer proclaimed “November 1931.” We could hear the wind noise outside. Queenie silently closed the door. More wind noise. An imperious female voice rang out, ‘Is this the Second World War now?’
At the end of the act, Ethel and Frank receive the news that their only son, Reg, and his wife have been killed. We see the conversation through the French windows in the garden. They’re talking, and it’s the only moment of true poignancy in the play. But we can’t hear them which is excellent given Coward’s inability to write lower middle class dialogue. Some poor old chap must have woken up to see mouths moving but no sound emerging. His voice echoed round the theatre as the curtain descended, “I’ve lorst the plot. What’s happening?”
But are matinees really crap? Are matinees raced through, gabbled off, a second-rate version of the Friday night performance? Certainly, Friday nights are noisier, possibly because the audience is both younger and more likely to be pissed. I once observed this with a production of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Mickey O’Donaghue’s New Vic Company twenty-odd years ago. I saw it alone on the opening Tuesday, and thought it so good that I went again with my wife on the Friday night, and we laughed so much that we later took the kids on Saturday afternoon. Yes, the Friday was packed to the doors and the Tuesday wasn’t. The Friday got more and louder laughs so probably ran several minutes longer. It was easily the best-received show, and that feeds back on the actors, but I would say hand on heart that they did not shortchange either the Tuesday or Saturday audiences.
It is hard work doing Hamlet twice in a day. It must be worse say doing Jeeves and Wooster in A Perfect Nonsense, where Bertie Wooster never leaves the stage. Hamlet gets a few pee breaks. But how hard is it? I’ve done lecture tours where I’ve spoken to large audiences on my own twice and even three times a day. In Mexico City once, I spoke to nearly a thousand for ninety minutes, took a thirty minute break, and spoke to a different thousand for ninety minutes. It’s as tiring as doing stand-up. OK, no dancing, no cold water on me from above, no sword fights, though if I’d had a sword, I’d have killed the technician who had to be told to stop fiddling with a lighting board causing spectacular sparks next to me. OK, it’s exhausting. And I had spoken to 200-400 people all the other days in the tour for a week before, with a couple of other two in a day. You couldn’t do it everyday, but twice a week? And for most of the cast, not a solo performance? I’ll add that “being yourself” is more “on the line” than acting a role, even if the role is emotionally draining. Not that Ophelia actually died. Nor did you really kill Polonius. And your uncle isn’t really screwing your mum.
The economics of theatre depends on two matinees a week. In 1950s and 60s rep, the matinee according to legend played to half-full houses if they were lucky, and actors saw them as management getting the last drop of blood out of a stone. I still recall Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance at a 1960s Bournemouth matinee with six of us in the 1200 seat theatre. I was in the cheap seats in the side balcony. They played it as it was … if they’d had any sense they’d have asked us all to move to the front row. You can see the lack of motivation in those circumstances. There are rumors of lead actors too “unwell” to play matinees, leaving it to the understudy, but who had recovered by the evening.
But is that true in 2015? As an advance booker, I can tell you that Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre matinee seats sell out before the evenings, as do Bath and Salisbury. At the Globe, given daylight, the matinee tends to be the default anyway, so they’re excluded from this.
I recognize other keen theatre goers. A lot are retired, or early retired. A lot, like us, regularly travel between 30 miles (Salisbury, Southampton), 65 miles (Bath, Chichester), 110 miles (London) or 150 miles (Stratford) for theatre. Logically, given driving home tired and in the dark as the alternative, the matinee is the first choice. I’d never select a matinee in Poole or Bournemouth, because that’s where I live. But everywhere else it makes sense.
There is a line between weekday matinees, always Wednesday or Thursday, and weekend matinees, usually Saturdays, but also Sundays at the National Theatre, RSC and Globe. The line is not audience numbers but audience reaction and feedback. In our three regional cathedral cities, all tourist magnets, Salisbury, Chichester and Bath, it is crowded, far harder to park and the streets are noisy at weekends. The weekday matinee audience is noticeably older and therefore less likely to leap to their feet or shout “Way to go!” This is not true on Saturdays when the audience profile is as mixed as it on evenings. The upside of weekday matinees is there is no one pushing along crowded rows with pints of beer … the older generations are trained to sit for 90 minutes without the need to graze or drink copious amounts of alcohol. The quieter reaction on weekday matinees might just be that they’ve seen more and have higher standards of what is an amazing performance. Also, some very elderly and disabled people make a huge effort to get to weekday matinees, and their appreciation cannot be measured in arms raised in the air and whooping.
The two fastest loudest spontaneous standing ovations I recall were both Saturday afternoon audiences: Kevin Spacey in Richard III at the Old Vic, and The Book of Mormon – very early in its long run. Both were London, where the reverse is true on access. It’s a far easier morning run into London on Saturdays and Sundays, easier to park and there’s no congestion charge. In London, it’s the weekend matinees where you see celebrities. We sat directly behind Nicole Kidman, watching Kenneth Branagh in Ivanov on a Saturday afternoon … she is even better-looking in real life, incidentally. We sat a couple of seats from Jeremy Paxman at the National Theatre on a Sunday afternoon. We sat behind cast members of Downton Abbey on a Saturday afternoon in the West End when another was on stage. At Bath Theatre Royal, there are a number of recognizable retired actors who are matinee regular
So should I suspect I’m being short changed? I have sometimes in fact, where I thought actors were gabbling in a matinee, or cutting curtain calls short. In one regional production, in a 15-20% full Saturday matinee, I strongly suspected they were giving the understudy a practice run.
So should actors look down snootily on matinee audiences? Should they try and coast through matinees? Do they do it? I’ve never suspected it at the RSC, in fact. I’m sure it never happens at The Globe. But I have been to West End plays less than half full in the afternoons. I have sat in the Nuffield Southampton with four of us in the full price seats, and about a dozen students in the cheap seats. Then again, draconian parking notices (it’s on the Southampton University campus) during the day on weekdays mean I wouldn’t attempt a matinee there again.
Would any other theatregoers and especially any actors like to comment?