A week ago I sat in the audience for Billy and clocked immediately that I'd landed myself next to a reviewer. Largely I knew this because he was wearing his press pass and had a notebook and pen on his lap; all he needed was a neon flashing sign and we'd have been sorted. I didn't know if this was good so I could spy on him and try and guess his response or bad because I would be on edge wondering if he was enjoying it.
As it was my positioning was pretty disastrous. After initial positive signs (laughter and suchlike) I began to get the feeling that it might not be going too well in his department. Or I say I got the feeling, more likely it was rammed home to me by his sighing and his holding his head and his scratching in his notebook 'SICK'. At the point where he starting repeating 'oh my God' and doing something that resembled rocking in his seat I wanted to take his fountain pen and jab it hard in his eye.
Now I should probably make something clear. All of the above are perfectly valid responses to Billy. I know I'm pretty much immune from the shock value of it, having seen it [insert large number here] times, having read the script before that, of knowing the writer and, because of how things turn out, knowing a little bit of how his imagination functions. I also know I'm a little bit [read: very] protective of him. But Billy is what it is because some people will not like it. I have a whole list of people I know who I would not advise to see it (we're starting with my mother and moving on from there). I was talking with a Box Office girl at the Bedlam about its list of warnings which are truly the longest set of warnings I have ever seen for a show (and, remember, I used to be a Duty Manager, I've seen - and written - a lot of warning signs) and those warnings make it pretty clear. If you're going to be offended then maybe this isn't the show for you. I won't judge you for that any more than you should judge me for thinking that Flawless isn't the show for me. There's plenty out there in Edinburgh that might be more appropriate.
But, whilst I don't judge the reviewer for having the reaction he did, I do judge - and criticise him - for having that reaction to the detriment of the people around him. He was exactly the worst kind of audience member to sit next to. Had I been new to Billy, had I been wrapped up in its world, waiting for what it was going to throw at me next, I would have had my enjoyment spoilt by someone who was blatantly not enjoying it. If that person had been a regular, paying audience member would have been bad enough, but that he was there on a free ticket, doing a job - that makes it all the worse. It makes it horrendously unprofessional. And I don't care if he was a professional reviewer or not (professional reviewers are in short supply up here in Edinburgh in comparison to the bulk of unpaid some time reviewers who swell the ranks), part of the deal is that you act professionally. Or, frankly, you shouldn't be doing it. It might be a laugh for you - and often reviewing is a laugh, I've had a brilliant, amazing and only occasionally painful time doing it - but for the people you're reviewing - this is their show, their money, potentially a good chunk of the way they've spent their time in the last six months. This is as serious as theatre gets. And all this is without considering the impression you create of the publication you're writing for.
I'm someone who hates people taking notes during shows (I once saw David Tennant take a girl's notebook off of her and, without breaking character, make her seem the most foolish person in the room. And I cheered him for it) and I do an inward sigh every time I see someone bring a notebook out. If you can't hold a thought in your head until it's the interval or until the show's finished then, really, I think we have a problem. Note taking is bad for actors, it's also bad for audience members around you.
Reviewer or not, paid ticket or not, we shouldn't leave our manners at the door.