Something unusual happened at the London Palladium last Sunday, when I caught the closing show in Madonna’s three-week residency: there wasn’t a single phone to be seen in the auditorium. Not one.
There was no filming her on stage, no horrid glare from the screens as people checked for messages and – perhaps most importantly – no one getting irate at others for using their devices during the show. It was a phone-free zone, and it was heavenly.
The Queen of Pop had insisted that everyone attending deposit their phones into small pouches, which were then sealed, given back to us to hold on to, and only unlocked at the end of the show.
It was all done seamlessly, effectively – it was quick and efficient. There was no queuing for the pouch to be unlocked at the end – a front-of-house staff member was stood at our exit, and within seconds had released my phone and returned it to me.
The result was an experience I’ve not had for some time. In the auditorium, prior to Her Madgesty arriving on stage, there wasn’t a mass of people, heads down, glued to their phones. Instead, people were talking to each other, taking in the magnificence of the Palladium and getting excited about the show that was to come. It forced us all to be very much in the moment.
And during the show, the only thing you could see ahead of you was the stage and Madonna. At other concerts, you’d expect to see row after row of lit-up phones, as people take pictures, film or FaceTime friends so they too can be part of the experience.
Once again, the no-phone zone meant all we were able to enjoy was the performance itself. It was wonderful and strangely liberating not having the temptation to look at my phone.
Admittedly, I was a little worried when I first had my phone sealed away that I wouldn’t be able to receive updates from the babysitter should there be any problems. But pretty soon I was able to rationalise this, and get my head around the fact that two hours without a phone would be okay. Plus, I’ve become so used to turning my phone off at the theatre anyway, that anything important has to wait for the curtain to come down. There’s usually nothing that couldn’t have waited.
I tweeted about my experience after the show, and while most were in agreement with Madonna and her desire to create a show free from electronic devices, some raised concerns about being out of contact in case a relative needed them.
I understand these concerns, but I think, in most cases, a couple of hours out of contact isn’t going be problematic for the majority of people.
We’ve become so used to being contactable at any time of day, wherever we are, that we think we have to be. We don’t. What about when you’re on a flight? Or at a swimming pool? Are you worried then? Most things can wait, and I certainly hate the idea that theatre is somewhere it’s okay to keep your phone on in case something bad happens.
It was wonderful and strangely liberating not having the temptation to look at my phone
You have to ask yourself, if you’re really worried about someone’s health prior to seeing a show, should you be going to the theatre at all?
I’m told (though this wasn’t conveyed to me) there were exemptions at Madonna’s show for people on medical grounds – those who need their phones for reasons to do with their health, which of course is only right. I also understand people were free to go to a member of staff at any time and ask for their phone to be unlocked, so they could check it if they needed to.
I would be interested to see if theatres follow Madonna’s lead and try this out in future. It wouldn’t work for all venues and shows as some productions encourage you to film the finale and share it.
And of course, it wouldn’t solve the problem of phones ringing in the auditorium if they haven’t been put on silent.
But I think it’s something to consider, and I for one would be keen to see it happen more often. I take my hat off to Madonna. She put on a great show, and she made sure everyone who paid hundreds to see her was able to enjoy it without a screen in the way.
Matthew Hemley is news editor of The Stage