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2 MARCH 2017

by Clive Francis
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It takes a brilliant, diminutive firecracker of an actor to speak out against the ongoing habit of selling and consuming food that is becoming endemic within the theatres of our country.

Imelda Staunton, who has just opened in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, has not only made her feelings known but also banned the practice from the West End's Harold Pinter Theatre, where she is appearing. My wish, now, is that others will follow suit.

At present, I’m performing upon the stage of London's beautiful Playhouse Theatre, where Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man received its first performance in 1894. Though I would imagine in Shaw’s day the only sounds to disturb the ear may have been the faint rustle of a programme or the occasional chocolate being passed to a neighbour.

Today, this same theatre offers its patrons (I’m not making this up) an actual menu, folded across the arm of the seats, allowing them the opportunity to order from a variety of snacks, drinks and confectionary served from the comfort of their surroundings on a little red tray.

Luxury indeed, unless you baulk at having to sit next to someone consuming a neatly packaged bagel ("filled with the finest ingredients") or a two-litre carton of popcorn ("sweet or salt"), or possibly a nice packet of crunchy Corkers Crisps, having at the same time just forked out a fortune for your ticket. I should point out that this "free seat delivery" service doesn’t just stop at food, but also provides you with a wide choice of liquid refreshment: from soft drinks to spirits and whole bottles of wine.

While theatre owners are happy to sell such produce and their audiences are content to guzzle it, a thought must be spared for the actor whose job it is to somehow battle through it.

Occasionally it's a minefield of plastic squelching, paper crinkling, cellophane rustling and straw sucking. I suppose the only consolation is that the produce is at least consumed and not projected as missiles as it was in Elizabethan days. That said, Bernard Shaw was once hit on the nose by a sausage. He told his assailant: "Throw vegetables next time, as I’m a vegetarian."

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Clive Francis
Cartoon by Clive Francis

Throughout the ages, actors have had to put up with any number of disturbances, whether it be stones, rotten, stinking produce or the dreaded mobile. I witnessed Kevin Spacey pacing the stage during his brilliant Clarence Darrow at the Old Vic while a phone rang continuously, until he snapped: ‘If you don’t answer that, I will!"

Many actors have had similar experiences, myself included. I sat next to a man who actually answered his phone with the immortal line: "Can’t talk now, I’m watching a play." On one occasion the late, lamented Richard Griffiths asked a woman to leave the theatre after her phone rang for the third time, adding that the audience would be quite justified in suing her. Patti LuPone got so fed up one night during Shows for Days on Broadway that she marched into the stalls, grabbed the offender's phone and confiscated it backstage.

But it's not only phones that have driven actors to confront their audience openly: incessant giggling and talking have done so as well. More recently, Ken Stott famously halted a performance of A View from the Bridge after being driven to distraction by the noise of youngsters, eventually having them removed. Nicol Williamson once told a party of schoolgirls in the middle of Hamlet to "shut up and listen", threatening to start his performance all over again unless all chattering ceased "forthwith".

The only time I found myself halting a performance was during Somerset Maugham’s The Circle, at Chichester in 1976. During a rather tender love scene with Susan Hampshire, a gentleman, obviously the worse for drink, stood up and began shouting at what I can only assume was his wife. The noise became so intolerable that I had no compunction but to ask if the gentleman in question could be removed from the auditorium, at the same time apologising to the audience, who greeted my intervention with an immediate burst of applause; after which I could do no wrong for the rest of the evening.

Mind, rowdy audiences have always had a place in history. Charles Dickens attended Samuel Phelp’s opening night of Macbeth in 1844, and recalls watching "amidst the usual hideous medley of fights, catcalls, shrieks, howls, oaths, obscenities, apples, oranges, biscuits and pipes. Pints of beer were carried through the dense crowd at all stages while fish was fried at the entrance doors".

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Clive Francis
Detail from ‘Spectacle Gratis’, G. Engelman, early to mid 19th century

If it’s not phones that is the mainstay of our grief, or chomping, talking or latecomers etc etc, then we can always fall back on the good old English cough, which, if not controlled, can become strangely contagious, floating around the theatre like a Mexican wave.

Ralph Richardson once considered the art of acting as "preventing your audience from coughing all evening" and James Agate once observed that nobody went to the theatre unless he or she was strumming along to their own catarrhs. The American actor John Barrymore was so incensed by the constant bronchial hysteria during his performance of Hamlet that he came on for Act II carrying a large fish, which he hurled into the audience, crying: "Here, you damned walruses, busy yourselves with that for the rest the play."

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Clive Francis and Carmele Corbett
Donald Sinden, Barbara Ferris and Clive Francis, ‘There’s a Girl in my Soup’ Globe Theatre,1966

What about booing, which began its life during the annual festival of Dionysia in Athens – a practice, I’m glad to say, that has fallen out of fashion with audiences these days.

The only time I experienced it was when the Gallery First Nighters' decided to boo during the curtain call of my first West End play, There’s a Girl in My Soup, in 1966. They booed with such relish that it provoked the stalls (who were politely applauding at the time) to retaliate by booing them, until it was impossible to know who was booing whom. Anyway, it didn’t matter as the play went on to become the longest-running comedy in the history of the West End.

Let me conclude by saying that actors down through the centuries have had to suffer interruptions, criticism, condemnation and abuse since time immemorial. After all, it was only 400 years ago that we were openly referred to as rogues, vagabonds and the scum of the earth, and if caught performing without a licence could have been grievously whipped and burned "through the gristle of the right ear with a hot iron of the compass of an inch about". It wasn’t until Henry Irving received his knighthood for services to the theatre in 1895 that the actor became acceptable.

But that was all a long time ago. After all, this is the 21st century. So please, "no more cakes and ale", phone ringing, texting, sweet wrappers and the like, but make it possible for each and every one of us to enjoy the experience of theatre in peace, allowing everyone "gently to hear and kindly to judge, our play".