Standing Orders – Frank McNally on ovation inflation at the theatre

Only a few dissidents sit and applaud politely

At the Gate Theatre during the week, I found myself in the now frequent – but still awkward – position of having to sit through a standing ovation.

It’s not that I hadn’t enjoyed the production, exactly. The New Electric Ballroom by Enda Walsh was well staged. The actors were good. The set was interesting. But the play itself bordered on hard work.

For one thing, it was ploughing an exhausted furrow: blighted Irish lives in the 1950s. Ireland was so sexually repressed then (at least in literature), it’s amazing our parents and grandparents managed to procreate at all.

But the text seemed to have more speeches than dialogue, and more poetry than drama. Half an hour in, I began to wonder whether there would be an interval and, if so, where they might find the cliff off which to leave us hanging.


In the event, there was no interval and, despite the play’s seaside setting, no cliffs either. But at the curtain call – as happens routinely everywhere now, from Broadway to the West End – the audience leapt to its feet en masse to acclaim an apparent triumph.

Only a few dissidents were left to sit and applaud politely, a response once considered sufficient for all except masterpieces.

This is the theatrical face of another US import I complained about here recently: the obligatory over-tipping in cafés and restaurants, any resistance to which makes us feel mean.

Time was, I considered myself a generous theatre-goer too.

I always added the applause equivalent of at least 12.5 per cent, even for a play that was barely adequate.

In more recent years, I have sometimes raised this to 18 or 20 per cent (joining the standing ovation, but only after a decent delay, as if on mature consideration of the production’s merits).

And occasionally, for a special performance, I too have opted for the 25 or 33 per cent top-rate option, jumping straight to my feet and staying there for several curtain calls.

But my suspicion that the ubiquitous vertical ovations of recent times are more mechanical than heart-felt is added to by their brevity.

The one in the Gate lasted only a single curtain call, or two maximum. I can’t be certain on this because I couldn’t see the stage. The standers had eclipsed the view, while also making me feel stingy for my seated gratuity, even though I rounded the applause up to 15 per cent.


Part of the drama in 21st-century theatre, of course, derives form the possibility that some eejit in the audience will forget to turn his or her phone to silent.

In the innocent early years of the smartphone, theatres used to ask people to switch the devices all the way off – an amusing notion now, but universally disregarded even then. It’s a measure of the technology’s global triumph that, in the pre-show speech, the Gate’s front-of-house man no longer even suggests such a draconian option.

Instead, he asked us only to turn our phones to silent, in non-vibrate mode, and to keep them closeted in bags or pockets throughout.

This was accompanied with warnings about the extreme sensitivity of the theatre’s acoustics and of the actors’ vulnerability to distraction by unwanted sound and lights.

Reminded powerfully of the social death that would result from my phone bleeping at a quiet moment, I treble-checked that mine was muted, before pocketing it.

Then, just as the play began and with a sensation of my blood curdling, I remembered the new Apple Watch – bought in a weak moment recently – now adorning my wrist.

The watch does so many intelligent things, I still don’t know what half of them are. But many involve beeps, vibrations, and verbal prompts.

Indeed, only the night before, when I had also forgotten it was there, the watch had interrupted the start of a talk I was giving with a spoken update about my daily exercise routine.

My mild embarrassment on that occasion earned a laugh from the audience. But I doubted the Gate would be so forgiving.

Unfortunately, it was too late now to find out how to mute the watch.

Instead, I pulled my shirt and jumper sleeves down over it. Then I clamped my right hand over left wrist for the entire performance, hoping to strangle any vibrations at birth.

Mercifully, there wasn’t a peep from the watch throughout.

Perhaps it too had heard the front-of-house man’s speech and entered a self-imposed coma. It wouldn’t surprise me if it can do that.

Soon it was bossing me around again, as usual. I don’t think it was a comment on the play, as such – although the watch is American and may be easily enthused by theatre – but the first thing it told me afterwards was that I hadn’t reached my daily target for standing.