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Mark Shenton: ENO’s food and drink ban is about profit margins

Chess at London Coliseum. Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg
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I’ve heard some arbitrary reasons for policing audience behaviour before, but few as genuinely outrageous as English National Opera’s ban on externally purchased food and drink for patrons attending Chess, an ENO co-production with commercial co-producers GradeLinnit.

As reported by The Stage last week, the ban applied only to musical theatre, pop and rock audiences, and not to those attending opera, dance or classical performances, who are permitted to bring soft drinks and confectionery into the London Coliseum.

English National Opera imposes ‘humiliating’ food and drink ban on musical theatre audiences

The theatre has now decided to extend the ban to audiences across all genres of production but, at the time,  Gary England, the theatre’s head of operations said: “A small minority of audiences have been known to replace water with gin or vodka and it has caused problems. We did a consultation and this was the case for musical theatre audiences.”

Really? This snobbish attitude towards musical theatre audiences over opera audiences – and the underlying assumption that they are going to break the rules and misbehave – makes me wonder: if ENO is so wary of its own audiences, why is it encouraging this breed of renegade to visit its hallowed premises?

At ENO a few years ago, a couple of opera-goers, clearly worse for wear from drink, chatted regularly during the first act of an opera, and I asked them to stop. In the interval, the male half of the couple challenged my husband to fisticuffs for my being so rude to his partner by asking them not to talk.

This policy was clearly discriminatory. I believe it may well be commercially driven. It is, after all, far more profitable to sell patrons your own heavily marked-up water and confectionery than allowing them to bring in their own.

Similarly some venues, particularly those on Broadway, will cite the prohibition of externally purchased food and drink as a security issue. But it’s not as if patrons are flying and could bring down the plane; the only thing it could bring down is the theatre’s profit margins.

The sale of alcohol is covered by licensing laws, so it’s understandable if a venue does not want alcohol brought on the premises that could contravene its licence; but forcing people to throw away sealed bottles of water – on the off-chance that they may have been doctored with alcohol – seems an assumption too far.

Of course, venues are free to set their own rules of admission as long as these are made clear at the point of sale. Imposing restrictions after the sale feels unreasonable and unfair, especially when they are not enforced equally on other audiences at the same venue.

But this whole argument is linked to a deeper concern, which I’ve often raised previously: the disruption that any food and drink can have in an auditorium.

During the most recent West End run of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Harold Pinter Theatre, audiences were prohibited from bringing food and drink into the auditorium, by order of its star Imelda Staunton.

Michael Billington, welcoming the policy, wrote in the Guardian: “A play works best when a collective act of audience concentration enhances the rigorous focus that the actors are working to achieve… We are engaging in a shared experience in which cast and audience are seeking to transcend the atomised isolation of our everyday lives. If people in the stalls are chomping, slurping, texting or crunching the plastic beakers containing their post-interval drinks then that becomes more difficult.”

Hear, hear.

I’m appalled that Ambassador Theatre Group (which operates the Harold Pinter among others) continues to sell buckets of popcorn at its West End theatres. When someone who’d bought one crunched their way through The Glass Menagerie sitting behind me at the Duke of York’s, I was powerless to complain, as the venue had sold it to them.

This is definitely a case of upselling to one customer at the expense of the reason others had come to the theatre: to enjoy a play uninterrupted by the noise of popcorn being eaten.

What’s the solution? Common sense and mutual respect seem only to go so far. Venues need to be mindful of the appropriateness of the snacks and drinks they are serving. But they can’t suddenly and arbitrarily impose bans on particular sectors of the audience.

But perhaps a blanket rule is also inappropriate. This was brought into relief by the recent film release A Quiet Place, which, as the title suggests, required quieter conditions than other films to enjoy it fully.

As Joe Queenan reported in the Guardian: “Many people, on both sides of the Atlantic, have become enraged at those who noisily consume food during A Quiet Place, saying it wrecks the atmosphere the film is trying to create. Their position is that people attending a movie with virtually no sound are morally obligated to keep their mouths shut.”

Some shows require different conditions to enjoy than others. What’s fine at Bat Out of Hell, for instance, won’t necessarily work for a Harold Pinter play.

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