There’s nothing quite like the feeling a shared collective response to a performance. Whether you’re the actor hearing it, hearing just how engrossed people are in your show, or you’re a member of said collective, partaking in a wholly unifying experience. This can take a number of forms from laughter at its simplest, to a standing ovation at its most joyous. It is, however, another kind of emotional response which intrigues me: the gasp.
By gasp I don’t mean those odd pockets of ‘huh’, the occasional turn and whisper to a neighbour in shock. I mean a collective gasp, the whole audience reacting to the point where it’s audible. I’ve only experienced this a handful of time myself, often for different reasons. Below are some examples I have experienced; obviously, spoilers for the shows lie ahead! So beware!
Simon Russell Beale and Jonathan Groff did a revival of Deathtrap a few years ago which was the first gasp I can remember. A play full of mystery, twists and death, it’s the perfect candidate for the gasp. On this occasion, it was accompanied with a few screams too! I won’t spoil too much, but it involved a character previously presumed dead, a well placed curtain and quiet, unsuspecting bit of dialogue. Another one played for shock in the star studded revival of Mojo at the Harold Pinter. In the final scene, a gun gets passed from one character to another and is then forgotten about. Except I never forget about a gun on stage. I saw one character put it in his pocket and then grasp his pocket later on. And even when he shoots, I still let out a gasp. And a scream. I hate gunshots on stage.
The next occasion was Strangers on a Train at the Gielgud, the film and book of which I had never read. This gasp came less from shock and more from ‘oh shit’. This section was even anticipated to elicit this reaction, with a notable gap left for the gasp. Convinced that one character has no recollection or knowledge of meeting another character, the police inspector leaves as one character wishes him a pleasant journey back to his city. When he never revealed where he came from. What also made this moment quite funny was the Mexican-shock-wave. I’d gone on a quiet matinee, aka discount student and seniors day. The younger amongst us got it straightaway; the older amongst us, a good five seconds later and followed by a ‘OOooooOOOoooh’.
The final one I can recall is likewise more shit than shock, though with more of a comical twist to it. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder has a fair amount of twists, most coming in the last scene and most tongue in cheek. One, however, produced a reaction more palpable than the others, which elicited more laughs than gasps. On being freed from prison, one character notes all this will prove quite interesting material for Monty Navarro’s memoir. The memoir which we know Monty has been writing in prison, as it formed the overarching narrative of the play. The memoir which he has left in the prison cell. ‘The memoirs…THE MEMOIRS!’ So much so was the audience on Monty’s side that we too gasped as he did for this twist in the tale. Fortunately, it is resolved and Bryce Pinkham’s reaction to this is priceless.
As I said at the start, there’s something magical about a collective audience experience. Feeling in that one moment with everyone else, you’re one collective, one body and in the case of the gasp: one breath. What have you seen which has provoked a gasp? In shock? Surprise? Fear?