Mark Shenton: It’s time to tackle noisy food and mobile phones in theatres

Nica Burns, Nimax chief executive Nica Burns is trying to reduce noisy packaging in Nimax Theatres
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It’s difficult to complain if someone is munching on popcorn during the quiet bits of a play like The Glass Menagerie when the theatre itself sells the stuff in big plastic tubs. No wonder that Imelda Staunton demanded that the Ambassador Theatre Group-controlled Harold Pinter Theatre introduced a no food or drink rule for her run there of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, since they not only usually sell it, but even deliver it to your seat.

As Sunday Times columnist Mrs Mills (the paper’s etiquette guru) wrote last weekend: “What is wrong with people that they can’t go for an hour without putting something in their mouths? There is something depressingly bovine about the need humanity has developed to be constantly grazing. The slovenly habits of their home lives, where everything is conducted in front of the television – eating, drinking, texting, idly chatting – are brought into the public space. I am sure people believe this makes them appear relaxed and chilled. If you bother to complain, you are dismissed as uptight and ‘repressed’ and you become ‘the one with the problem’.”

This is a depressingly familiar script. Challenge the bad behaviour, and it seems like you’re the one with the bad manners. My favourite response was when I asked a woman to refrain from taking photographs during a performance at the intimate Union Theatre. The offender was truly outraged – she told me it was her little brother who was in the show, and if I’d wiped his arse as often as she had, I could take photographs, too. On another occasion, I told off another woman who had taken flash photography throughout a performance at the Barbican Theatre in 2012 – only to discover the offender was Bianca Jagger. When my confrontation of her made the news pages, she replied claiming that I’d assaulted her. I had made absolutely certain not to lay a finger on her – I’d insulted her (summonsing my inner Patti LuPone, I’d asked her, “Who do you think you are?” and then called her stupid), yes, but there was no physical connection.

Last week, The Stage reported a real assault, when a theatregoer at the Old Vic was punched by the partner of a woman using a mobile phone throughout the first act, after he remonstrated with them. But prevention is definitely better than cure. In New York, it is actually now illegal to use a mobile phone in “any indoor theater, library, museum, gallery, motion picture theater, concert hall or building in which theatrical, musical, dance, motion picture, lecture or other similar performances are exhibited” by a city ordnance passed in 2013.

Theatre producer ‘punched’ after asking audience member to stop using phone

Actor Zoe Rainey recently tweeted of another experience: “What a crazy world!!! I had to ask a lady to stop taking photos at Sergei Polunin’s ballet. It’s so distracting. The beauty of theatre is immersing yourself in the world the actors are creating. If you can’t be without your phone for two and a half hours that night, stay at home. Please!”

But other theatres have evidently given up the battle. A friend recently attended this year’s Hackney panto, where an usher informed him that it was the theatre’s policy to permit mobile use. Was that because it was a panto? “No,” he was told. “All the time. Calls and texting and social media are permitted. Just no photos of the show.”

As for noisy food: Nica Burns at Nimax is leading the way by withdrawing the sale of food products with noisy packaging.

She told The Stage: “To try to improve the experience for all theatres we’ve been looking at the packaging… We are in a place of transition. A few of the very noisy packages have now been gracefully retired, and we’ve brought in similar ones that don’t make any noise.”

Nimax Theatres introduces ‘scrunch test’ to combat noisy snacks

But sometimes the behaviour doesn’t stop at rustling or mobile phone use, either. As Mrs Mills also reported: “Sadly, I fear this treating the world as if it were your sitting room is only going to get worse.

“In 2015, a man in the audience at the Tony award-nominated play Hand to God on Broadway climbed on stage and attempted to charge his mobile phone by plugging it into a prop plug socket on the set. And, if it’s a struggle for some to go a couple of hours without eating, one couple in the audience were unable to get through the first act of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown without having sex. The actors, Tamsin Greig and Haydn Gwynne, asked an usher to intervene as they were finding it distracting.”