Let's not forget that plays are on at an inconvenient time for our bellies

As the theatre industry begins another conversation about eating in theatres, Holly Williams explains why her sympathies lie with the eaters in the audience

People quite clearly wanted to talk about theatre etiquette
To eat, or not to eat, that is the question
(© (Alyson Hurt/flickr))

Squirrel your salted peanuts away in your handbag. Put the lid on those over-priced pots of crisps. Ticketholders for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? have been asked in advance, in an email from the theatre, not to eat during performances. (Fear not: you’re still allowed to take drinks in to this most booze-sodden of shows.)

Given the show stars Imelda Staunton, who last year spoke out against eating in theatres, the decision has been interpreted as either being at her behest, or at least out of respect for her feelings about mid-stalls munchers. And so this perennial debate once again causes a minor stink, like an egg sandwich snaffled as the curtain goes up.

I’m setting out my stall with the stalls eaters

On the one hand, performers like Staunton are absolutely within their rights to be annoyed by the rustling of wrappers; it can be distracting when you’re just sitting in an audience, let alone when you’re onstage and you’ve got three hours of Edward Albee to deliver.

On the other hand, bans prompt cries of elitism. Outdated, prissy rules make the theatre industry seem like a snooty club; the use of terms like "etiquette" and "bad behaviour" certainly bring in an unhelpful whiff of class war. That it is new or youthful audiences who are often blamed failing to know the 'right' way to behave (see Richard Jordan’s article about Doctor Faustus in the West End) only adds to the sense that this is a cultural gatekeeping exercise as much a practical concern – and one which might even put off just the sort of audiences theatres really need to attract.

I’d rather people felt comfortable in a theatre than on tenterhooks

To be honest, eating in shows doesn’t bother me that much. I remember feeling almost proud of the gumption of my fellow countrymen when a group of young, Welsh theatre-goers returned after the interval of Land of our Fathers with bags of chips; it rather added to the atmosphere. Very smelly food can be a bit gross, granted, just as it is in the cinema or on a night bus. But instances of KFC in the circle are still, I think, pretty rare.

And basically, I’d rather people felt comfortable in a theatre than on tenterhooks. If putting up with the odd hiss of a Coke can means an 18 year-old becomes more absorbed in Albee than embarrassed at being told off by an usher, that’s fine by me. Besides, theatres sell food, which in some cases can be ordered and brought direct to your seat. Talk about mixed messages!

Also, can we just acknowledge that plays are on at a really inconvenient time for our bellies? It’s too early for dinner beforehand, too late after, and theatres don’t help themselves by often not making the running time clear. People may complain about munching being distracting, but hunger pangs and stomach rumbles are surely worse.

All it takes is for a train delay, and suddenly you may be faced with the tragedy of blank verse on an empty stomach

I confess to not being entirely sure how other people manage this; as someone in the theatre several nights a week, I’m still usually to be found outside five minutes before curtain up stuffing my face with a baguette, or running in with a half-eaten flapjack in hand. I daresay it’s largely the fault of my poor time management, but surely I’m not alone: a lot of people must be rushing straight from work without time for pre-theatre dining. All it takes is for a train delay, and suddenly you may be faced with the tragedy of blank verse on an empty stomach.

Maybe I just have a fast metabolism, but the idea of getting though 90 minutes without eating something beforehand honestly brings me out in a cold sweat. Obviously I try to avoid chowing during a show, but I often eat during the interval if I didn’t manage a tactical sarnie beforehand, and this frequently involves desperately shelling out for whatever snack a theatre sells. Queuing to buy food, having already queued for an age to go to the ladies, can eat up the interval and suddenly it’s act two and you’ve only managed a handful of crisps and you’re still starving…

So I’m setting out my stall with the stalls eaters. It’s better that people feel like the theatre is a place they can go to without sitting there worrying about a right or wrong way to do things. And it’s better to have a stealthy snack and engage with a play than sit there anxiously, silently, worrying mostly about dinner.