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Dear West End Producer: ‘When and where did the tradition of interval ice cream start?’

West End Producer West End Producer. Photo: Matt Crockett
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Theatre is steeped in traditions. From a fear of the ‘Scottish play’, to expensive warm white wine, avoiding whistling onstage and saying ‘break a leg’ instead of ‘good luck’ – these traditions give theatre it’s wonderful charm.

But of course, the most delicious tradition is one that involves three things: a tongue, licking and a pleasant taste in the mouth. No, I’m not talking about snogging the director (although that can be useful). I’m talking about the interval ice cream, dear.

Ice creams are a staple of the theatregoing experience. In fact, there are times when the interval ice cream is the best thing about a show. In West End theatres a tub of this frozen dairy delight can cost as much as £5 – which works out at 5p a lick if you consider that the average small tub takes about 100 licks (I’ve been doing lots of research, dear). And, as you say, this delicacy is a welcome way of cooling ourselves in this heatwave, particularly after an hour of watching Aidan Turner brood onstage.

So, where and when did this tradition start? One of the most popular thoughts is that it began in Victorian England, when seaside tourists would bring ice creams into music hall venues and theatres from the local pier (particularly end-of-the-pier shows during summer season).

Other sources suggest the idea came over with Italian opera companies – where singers would also insist that ice cream was a good way of relieving their tired voices.

Interestingly, there was a time when sweets and other treats were banned from being sold in theatres – shop owners were outraged at the competition. However, after some bribery involving complimentary tickets and free access to peep backstage, this dispute was quickly resolved and ice cream was permitted again.

So as you can see, no one really knows the exact origin of this creamy tradition. But the fact is that ice creams are the perfect theatrical food. Not only are they quiet to consume, but they also smell nice – and can last the entire second half if licked at a gentle pace.

Only recently I was watching a show ‘up north’ where a selection of sandwiches was available front of house. And believe me, the smell of ice cream is much more appealing than that of a tuna mayonnaise bap.

Of course, there are other treats that are fine in the theatre: sweets (with wrappers already open to avoid constant rustling), popcorn (as long as it’s in an open box and not a packet), Pringles (these tube-based crisps are far less noisy than crispy alternatives), candies such as fruit gums and pastilles (perfect for silent sucking) and chocolates (unwrapped – but avoid during this heatwave, as it may result in a brown mess all over your new outfit).

However, ice cream is still the firm favourite, particularly with all the kinds that are now available. I’m a big fan of the new ginger and rhubarb flavour, but not so sure about the organic John Barrowman one (I found it rather sour, dear).

Send questions to your dear agony aunt via Twitter @westendproducer

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