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Bachelorettes, Brawls and Body Cameras: A Night at the Theater in London



LONDON — The West End is traditionally seen as a genteel place where crowds flock to sit amid Victorian opulence, watching the world’s great actors and musical stars in quiet reverie.

But after a few too many cellphone arguments, wild bachelorette parties and patrons getting drunk on smuggled-in gin, some theater owners have decided it’s time to use a high-tech tool for crowd control: body cameras.

Last month, The Stage, a British theater newspaper, revealed that several London venues had bought the devices to combat an increase in aggressive, alcohol-fueled theatergoers.

“When you mix in alcohol with the theater environment, that can exacerbate situations,” Phil Brown, the head of risk and safety at the Society of London Theater, told the paper. Some front of the house staff members had refused to work Friday and Saturday nights because of the public’s bad behavior, he said.

The small cameras are clipped to belts or shirts, and have a front-facing screen that shows the image being recorded, he said. People calm down when they see themselves being unreasonable, he added.

But because body cameras are more commonly associated with policing, theater officials have been reluctant to draw any attention to them.

On a tour of London’s theaters last month, staff members refused to speak about whether ushers were using body cameras, although employees at the doors who check bags on the way in appeared to be wearing the devices at “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” “Mamma Mia!,” and “Thriller Live.”

“I can’t say anything, sorry,” said Michael La Borde of Pace Prestige Services, a company that provides security to at least one London theater, in a telephone interview. “That’s above my pay grade,” he added. (Mr. La Borde is the company’s managing director.)

Julian Bird, the chief executive of the Society of London Theater, said in a telephone interview that there had been “a lot of misreporting” about the issue. Some British newspapers, picking up The Stage’s story, had portrayed the West End as a war zone, he said: “That’s so ridiculously over the top.”

Seven London theaters were using the technology, he said, although he declined to name them. He said his understanding was that normal ushers — such as those who sell ice cream at intermission — were not using body cameras in any West End theaters. They were used only by security workers, or theater managers, who dealt with incidents that ushers could not resolve, he added.

In March, the Society of London Theater, and UK Theater, another trade body, asked their members to report bad audience behavior. Forty-four incidents had been logged, Mr. Bird said, out of over 14 million trips to theaters. “It’s tiny,” he added.

Not everyone was so quick to dismiss reports of unruly patrons. Adam Charteris, 28, an actor who works as an usher between jobs, said in a telephone interview that audience members had sworn at him, and that he had seen fights. He blamed high ticket prices for the worsening conduct. “It puts so much pressure on a night out,” he said, “and the second something goes wrong it becomes a big emotional issue.”

Incidents could erupt from something as minor as someone kicking the back of your chair, he said.

Behavior was worse around emotional events like Christmas, Mr. Charteris added. A few years ago, on Valentine’s Day, “two couples started swinging at each other in the middle of Row J,” he said. “It was just extraordinary.”

Mr. Charteris said the general feeling among ushers was that the audiences for so-called jukebox musicals were the worst behaved. These shows, which string together well-known pop songs, usually end with the audience singing and dancing in a finale that’s more like a rock concert than a play. But London’s more upmarket productions are not immune from rowdy behavior, either.

In December 2017, a theater producer said he was punched at a performance of “A Christmas Carol” at the Old Vic theater, after asking a man’s girlfriend to stop using her cellphone. In May 2018 the English National Opera banned open water bottles after “someone got drunk by smuggling in gin, and threw a loaf of bread across the auditorium,” Stuart Murphy, the opera’s chief executive, told The Daily Telegraph. (A spokeswoman for the opera company declined to comment for this article.)

The following month, two men at the National Theater got into fisticuffs at the end of a performance of “Julie,” a play inspired by the work of August Strindberg. At a performance of Wagner’s “Siegfried” at the Royal Opera House in March, a punch-up landed opera fans in court.

Kirsty Sedgman, a lecturer in theater at the University of Bristol who has written a book on audience behavior, said that fights in the arena are as old as theater itself: Plato complained about “catcalls and uncouth yelling” during performances in ancient Greece.

What is new, she said, is a culture clash between older audiences, who want silence, and newer ones, who attend the theater for a fun night.

Jukebox musicals are exactly the kind of shows that pull in the second. On a recent Friday night, body cameras were visible on the security guards at the Aldwych Theater for “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.” A preshow announcement asked people to “please refrain” from dancing or singing during the performance, and, in the first half, ushers had to tell at least three audience members in the orchestra level to put their phones away and stop filming.

But there was nothing bad enough to warrant a body camera’s glare. No one was sick in the aisle, and no one belted out “Let’s Stay Together” from their seat. At one point in the second half, a minor flap broke out when a woman spilled a glass of rosé and lemonade. But any noise was just the woman, in a very British fashion, repeatedly apologizing for the upset.

After the performance, a bachelorette party stood outside the theater taking photos. Emma Simpson, 46, wearing a veil and “Bride to Be” sash, said her party, who were wearing novelty headgear for the night, had been well behaved. “We only had two gin and tonics before the show,” she said.

Body cameras sounded like a brilliant idea, Ms. Simpson added. “I’m all for people having a little bit of a laugh, but it’s a thin line when you’re spoiling it for others,” she said. Her group had gone out of its way not to be a pain, she said: “We even took our bunny ears off.”

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