A Londoner’s Guide to Theatre Etiquette

What to wear, when to go, what to eat - all your theatre etiquette questions answered

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When going to the theatre in London, certain rules apply. But with our quick guide to theatre etiquette, you’ll be prepared for anything – and avoid any potentially awkward or stressful moments.

When should I arrive?

Whether you’re heading to a huge West End venue or a tiny pub theatre, arriving early is essential. There are often busy queues to collect tickets, and shows start right on time. Aim to arrive at least 30 minutes before the show starts.

What should I wear?

There’s a long and fabulous history of people donning their best clothes to go to the theatre. The first balcony of a traditional West End theatre is usually called the Dress Circle, after the gorgeous, glittering frocks worn by the rich Victorian ladies who once sat there.

But these days, there’s no need for top hats and tails, satin and pearls. Although quite a few people like to wear smart clothes for a trip to the theatre, feel free to wear whatever you feel comfortable in. And in the hot summer months, wearing light, comfy clothing is a real plus.

Can I store my bags at the theatre?

It depends which theatre you’re going to. The National Theatre and The Barbican both offer free, easy-to-use cloakroom services, but other theatres might charge for the service – or not offer it at all. Check the theatre’s website beforehand to be sure.

Can I bring food?

Theatres aren’t as strict as cinemas about bringing your own food – there’s nothing wrong with carrying a plastic bottle of water, your own sandwiches to eat during the interval, or a cheeky box of chocolates to share with a friend.

But it’s worth bearing in mind that you might encounter a few raised eyebrows (or even a dreaded ‘tut’) if you turn up with anything rustly, loud or smelly to eat. Crisps, wrapped sweets and hot food are prime offenders.

Can I have a drink?

Yes. In fact, sipping a glass of wine or a G&T at the interval is positively encouraged, with interval drinks available to pre-order from the bar. But most theatres will ask you to transfer your drink into a plastic cup (safety first) before you return to your seat. If you’d like to explore some of the best places to enjoy a pre-show drink, we’ve rounded up London’s best theatre bars here.

Can I use a mobile phone?

Okay, mobile phones are one area where theatre rules are pretty strict. Keep it switched off – or, at the very least, on silent (no vibrate). It goes without saying that taking a call is a no-no. Kevin Spacey once famously told an audience member with a ringing phone to “Answer it, or I will!” Even quietly checking a text message can be distracting for people around you, let alone for the actors on stage, who’ll see your face lit up like a Christmas tree.

Can I whisper/talk/laugh?

Some draconian theatregoers will tell audience members off for ‘offences’ as mild as an ill-timed giggle. But reacting to the action on stage is part of the joy of seeing a live performance. And actors love the energy that comes from a buzzing crowd who gasp with shock or laugh until tears roll down their cheeks. Unrelated chitter chatter isn’t always so welcome, though. If you’re really not enjoying the performance, try to keep your feelings to yourself. There’s nothing to stop you voting with your feet by leaving at the interval.

What about audience participation?

Even the most hardened theatregoers go wobbly at the knees at the thought of being dragged on to the stage. But although a handful of productions might bring the odd audience member into the spotlight, there’s no need to worry. Shows have to factor in all ages and abilities, so you’ll only be asked to do something simple, safe and, at worst, a little silly. If that thought still fills you with horror, remember that no one can drag you onto the stage: if you don’t want to go, stay put and they’ll pick someone else.

When should I clap?

It’s pretty easy to work out when to clap at the theatre, but when in doubt wait until everyone else does. And enjoy yourself – this is the one part of the show where absolutely nobody can complain you’re making too much noise.