Get our free email newsletter with just one click

Green Room: How do you handle someone who’s unreliable on stage?

Noises Off (Old Vic, 2011) attests to the woes that can befall a production... Photo: Tristram Kenton

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…​​​​​​​​​​

Gary Abblett is a 38-year-old jobbing actor with experience at the National, RSC, in the West End and on the road

Adam Lovett is a 45-year-old actor who has appeared in film, BAFTA-winning TV, at the RSC, National and West End


Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA award winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

Peter Quince is a 72-year-old actor working in theatre and television

Annie Walker is 25. Since graduating from drama school, she has worked in regional theatres and is a writer and street performer


AdamWho’s defining unreliable? Because somewhere in a parallel universe there are a bunch of “unreliable” actors talking about how to handle us.

Annie Actors who are late on stage and don’t show up for a scenes.

Albert Do we mean unreliable in the sense that they can’t be trusted?

Adam There are basic professional requirements… the main one is learning your lines.

JonDuff lines and personal blocking I guess would be the main ones.

Gary Unreliable is an interesting word… I recently worked with an appalling actor. I tried to “help” him be better because, obviously I’m flawlessly brilliant, but it was pointless… Just live and let live.

Annie That’s frustrating.

Adam But, for example, someone might like to change things up every night: blocking, energy, inflections… and to another actor who is a bit more on railroad tracks that might come across as unreliable, but actually it’s just two different ways of working.

Peter Tricky. There are different ways of being unreliable. Someone may always be insecure on lines, but a lapse from someone who is usually reliable can throw you more.

Albert I once took over a small role in the tour of a show I had directed in London. The lead was pissing everybody off, but a carefully engineered meeting in a backstage corridor and an implicit threat seemed to do the trick.

Gary Unpredictable is fine by me.

JonI think there’s a difference between someone who changes it up – as hopefully we all do – and someone who feeds you lines you’ve never heard before.

Annie Yes, you can be an unpredictable actor and be reliable.

Adam The danger is that “unreliable” comes to mean “they are not doing what I would like them to do”.

Albert When unpredictable means bringing a freshness to it, that’s great, but when it means trampling all over your fellow actors it’s not so good.

Peter Those people who come in one word before the end of your laugh line.

Annie If the actor changes the blocking or inflection, I think it’s up to the other actor to react. It should feel exciting.

Adam Inevitably, as actors you try to patch things up, paper over the cracks and sometimes you end up making the other actors look good at your expense. I worked with an actor who always forgot his lines and the audience always thought it was me because of how he styled it out.

Annie I worked with two actors in the same show who didn’t show up for our scenes, I was on stage improvising for what seemed like an eternity.

JonI once worked with a drunk who was reliable as clockwork on stage, even when she was bumping into flats behind the scenes.

Albert I think I know her, Jon – or I’ve worked with her too.

JonNo names, no pack drill.

Albert Failing memory is one thing – the worst is when the actor has never learned their lines in the first place. Turning up for the first scene of the day on a soap, knowing the child you are playing opposite won’t know the words.

JonI think we’re kind about lines sometimes: “He/she’s struggling” when actually it’s that the work hasn’t been putting the work in.

Peter Some people blame the writer: “I can’t remember it because it’s so badly written.”

Adam I think you usually know when you need a conversation, but most of the time you’re afraid of the conflict (or at least I am), so you find a way to make do – and perhaps have a quiet word with stage management if it gets really out of hand.

Annie I’ll normally joke with the annoying actor and check that all is okay. Or pretend it’s me that needs the help, which now I’ve realised I do I will stop doing immediately.

JonIt’s always hard when there’s a mistake on lines that has become baked in – especially if stage management aren’t doing something about it.

Peter Most people who are shaky on lines know it and their nervousness makes it worse. You should say something when the mistake has been embedded and “learned”.

Annie I often think that’s best. As a writer, if I write something one way, it’s because I have thought about it, often for a long time, and have chosen to write it that way.

Adam Often the tone for what you can get away with is set by a director in rehearsals. When you work with a director who doesn’t let anything pass, the discipline in the company is much stronger.

Peter People who don’t listen are trouble. And I’ve been with several drunks on stage.

Adam Me too, Peter – it’s tricky, isn’t it?

Annie That is not fun.

JonNot fun at all.

Adam It’s not as if you can say: “I say, dear fellow, maybe lay off that fourth martini before coming on stage?” because alcoholism runs deeper than that.

Annie I did a lot of sword work with a severe hangover sufferer, but she wasn’t drunk. I think. I hope.

Dear West End Producer: ‘How do you deal with a fellow lead who cuts off your lines every time?’

We need your help…

When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.

The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.

We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.

Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.