PAUSE FOR THOUGHT… Eating and drinking  

Susan Elkin champions the case for banning food and drink in theatres

If you want to picnic then go to a park. In a theatre “The play’s the thing” in every sense. Eating and drinking are for elsewhere.

Traditionally gentlemen bought rustly chocolates to impress the ladies they wanted to impress. Theatres sold said expensive chocolates at huge profits. Some still do. And they shouldn’t. Given the price of theatre tickets these days there is no excuse for further profiteering.

Worse – much worse –  are the snacks cheerfully sold in many theatres to encourage punters first to open their wallets and second to disturb people around them. And the very worst offender is popcorn because it smells so frightful.

Then there’s the stuff people bring in – and nobody stops them. I’ve sat next to people eating sandwiches, crunching crisps like manic goats and even, on one occasion, eating a Chinese takeaway with a fork. Nice if you’re the consumer and you’re hungry maybe, but just imagine the stench for everyone else.

And that’s before you start on drink. Theatre bars are there to make (handsome) profits. So the general rule is now that anything goes provided it’s in a plastic glass – and you bought it in the theatre. Woe betide you, incidentally, if you got it elsewhere. On the one occasion I arrived at an 11.00 am children’s show in a West End theatre having travelled for two hours and just had time to grab a much-needed cup of tea in a lidded cup from the coffee shop over the road, Front of House was down on me like a ton if bricks and I had to dump it. So this soi-disant “relaxed” attitude is definitely about profits rather than anything to do with the comfort, convenience or pleasure of theatre goers.

Many theatre seats are very cramped. They make economy class look quite luxurious. We sit so close to strangers in theatres that under other circumstances we might regard it as an invasion of personal space. That is why –  if we are to share and enjoy the enhancing experience of theatre –  it is vital that we respect each other. And, as far as I’m concerned, that does not include having someone else’s beer or wine poured on my feet or in my lap, usually by that couple who are – naturally –  last in because they bought the seats in the middle.

Eating and drinking in the theatre is a distraction. If you’re fussing about rummaging for the next crisp or worrying about the drink you just kicked over you’re not giving your full attention to the show which is being performed for you. And I think that’s rudely insulting to the cast and creatives who’ve worked so hard to present it to you.

We could change this culture. There is absolutely no need for snacking at the theatre. Sixty to ninety minutes is the usual maximum between breaks. No one will expire from hunger or thirst in that time. Stewards at The Globe are successfully vigilant about cameras. The same attention could easily be paid to food and drink. Unicorn Theatre has a no eating and drinking rule and it’s fine. I have, in my time, taken hundreds of school parties to many different theatres and my students were always firmly forbidden to eat and drink anything during the performance. No one died. No one ever objected either. They just accepted it as theatre etiquette.

And yet producer Sonia Freidman recently opined that, whatever, line we eventually take for adults and their in-theatre consumption habits, we have to make an exception for children. Why? Once a child is two or three years old she or he should be trained to eat meals at mealtimes. Guzzling snacks at other times simply means diminution of appetite for real food at meals – watch families in restaurants if you don’t believe me and then compare them with families in, say France, where snacks are unusual. Hunger is the best sauce and it’s absolutely fine for a child to feel a bit peckish as a mealtime approaches. Has it not occurred to anyone that allowing children to shovel food (or junk) into themselves continually might, just might, be a causal factor in the obesity crisis? Shows for children are short anyway – often it’s only a matter of 50 minutes or so.

So I shall continue to glare – with as much disapproving venom as I can muster – at the crunchers, rustlers and munchers with their smelly snacks along with the teetering bearers of those full glasses in a very confined space. Shall we start a campaign?