The new ban on smoking in enclosed public places came into force in England at 6.00am yesterday (1 July 2007). The law, of course, applies to theatres as well – with a notable exception. Unlike their Scottish counterparts, actors in England are exempt from the ban during performance if and when smoking is integral to the plot. But there remains confusion over the exemption – and how plot integrity can be proved.

The confusion could have an impact on tonight’s West End opening of The Last Confession, Roger Crane’s new thriller set in the Vatican in 1978 and starring David Suchet, in which one of the characters does light up.

In an interview with the Evening Standard, Theatre Royal Haymarket manager Mark Stradling said: "We can't afford to let the smoking scene go ahead for fear of prosecution. To me, it all seems absolutely ridiculous. Even in New York, theatres don't have a problem with it. You can't smoke anywhere in New York, but it's allowed on Broadway on stage".

There’s a possibility that the on-stage exemption could be questioned if there are specific complaints from the public. In that case, theatre management could face fines, as other businesses do, of up to £2,500 for the transgression, while the actors who smoke may also be liable to the tune of up to £200.

Speaking to today, Richard Pulford, chief executive of the Society of London Theatres (SOLT), explained: "The law is quite simple - there is an exemption for performers on stage where it is necessary for the artistic integrity of the production. All our members (who comprise theatre owners and managers) have been told. The regulations will be enforced by hundreds of local authority officers up and down the country. One can’t absolutely guarantee that one particular authority may not make an issue of it, but the law is very clear."

The Department of Health and theatre owners previously considered plans to post warning signs similar to those alerting audiences to the use of strobe lighting and gunshots, a method employed by the Barbican Theatre for its recent production of Three Sisters (See The Goss, 29 May 2007). Pulford says, however, that this is “not required”.

In today’s 20 Questions with Andrew Woodall, currently appearing in Peter Gill’s revival of Gaslight at the Old Vic, the actor expresses his anger at the smoking ban, insisting that: "I’m damned if I’m not going to smoke on stage. How are you going to do Noel Coward plays, and all those other period dramas? How do you prove that something is integral to the production? I wouldn’t be surprised if you have to put a sign up saying that ‘there is nudity, gunshots and... ooh, someone lights a cigarette’. Grow up! It really really gets on my nerves. My entire career is based on smoking on stage. People like smoking on stage because it’s interesting."

At last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, after being told he could not smoke a cigar on stage whilst portraying Winston Churchill, comedian Mel Smith rebelled by lighting up outside a window in protest (See The Goss, 8 Aug 2006), an act widely reported by the media.

- by Jake Brunger