Opinion: The Wrong Kind of Audience Participation

Tommy Tiernan

Tommy Tiernan had one of those people in last night at the Soho Theatre. You know, the ones who insist on interrupting your seamless routine and think that they are helping you out. I think she said she was from Lettermore, though after a while I began to think that she wasn't even sure where she was from herself.

Tiernan tried to ignore her but eventually he succumbed and addressed the elephant in the room when he had attempted to start the same story for the third time. It's a very difficult balance to strike, because if you don't engage with them you know that they are spoiling the gig for the people around them. But if you do engage with them the chances are they will take this as encouragement and can potentially derail the gig. I was behind her and noticed that she was filming the incident too – she must have felt she was part of a double act. This wasn't heckling, this was someone thinking they could engage a perfomer in conversation mid-act. I bet that that never happens to Simon Russell-Beale when he is doing King Lear. The funniest moment was when Tiernan tried to pick up where he was and asked her to rewind so that he could find his place. 

He was brilliant at handling a precarious scenario (Al Murray is another performer whose putdowns are a masterclass in crowd control). The gig started at 9.30pm and it was clear that a few people had been drinking since they finished work at 6pm. Before the big conflagration a different woman in the front had been fidgeting so much Tiernan asked her if she wanted to go to the loo and when she said yes he said that was fine. Which seemed to be a cue for five other people also in the front row to get up and go to the toilet. Tiernan was clearly irritated and asked the staff if they could hold them at the back for the rest of the gig so that they didn't interrupt his flow again. Eventually though he let them back when there was a natural pause.

As for the woman from Lettermore, Tiernan speculated that maybe 9.30pm was not the best time to start the show though maybe lunchtime would have been a problem for her too and got a resounding round of applause. In fact I could not help noticing it probably got the loudest cheer of the night. My review of the show is here.

These kind of interruptions are curious affairs to watch. Performers hate them and yet at the same time when they work out they can bring a gig to life, adding an electrifying spontaneity to a show. It is a bit like Formula 1 racing. Everyone goes to admire the skill and to watch how fast the drivers go, but an unscripted prang can be compelling. Like car crashes we'd rather it didn't happen. But is it just me or is there a perverse thrill in the crowd when a gig goes off-piste? Go and see Tiernan. He is at the Soho Theatre until Feb 1, details here. Though I can't guarantee the Lettermore lady will be in every night.

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