To eat, or not to eat? That is the question.

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Image credit: Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?

This week the Harold Pinter Theatre has decided to ban food in its auditorium, possibly at the request of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? star Imelda Staunton. The move has seemed to divide the opinions of theatregoers, with reactions ranging from it being long overdue to elitist. Given my previous on theatre etiquette, I couldn’t really let this pass without comment.

First off, let’s look into this particular situation. The measure has been put into place purportedly because the play has a lot of quiet and intense moments, which would be ruined if people were eating all their way through it. Fair enough. But isn’t it a bit hypocritical to promote such a range of food (a lot of noisy food, at that) in the same place that you’re banning it? It’s double standards at work: if you don’t want people eating in your theatre, minimise your own culpability by selling a small amount of quiet food.

I’ve not been to the Harold Pinter since they started this, so I’m not sure exactly how it’s being enforced – but considering mobile phones are always banned from being used and there nearly always seems to be someone flouting this rule, it seems a ridiculous thing to try and police.

Generally speaking one act of a show will be no longer than around 1h20 (we’ll not go into straight-throughs now) – I really can’t understand why people feel they need to sit there guzzling food for the entire time! Have something just before it starts and then ‘top up’ at the interval if necessary. Given my background in biological science, I can’t say I know of any health conditions that require you to graze on sweets, crisps or popcorn for hours, so there really is no excuse for it. It’s simply a bad habit people have gotten into – not helped by cinemas and theatres offering increasingly broad menus – that needs to be addressed.

And I live by these standards, I’m not just preaching at you. The only time I’ll eat during a show is if I have a cough, so I’ll have a few boiled sweets to prevent me from coughing during the performance; they’re always unwrapped and ready to be eaten with no noise.

However, given the nature of my existence (I work full time and am out reviewing several times a week) I am often rushing around and have little time to eat – I find the half an hour between the house opening and the curtain rising invaluable for sitting and having a bit of sustenance (and possibly the odd bite in the interval, if there is one). I’d prefer not to have this opportunity for recharging taken away because of other people’s bad manners and lack of consideration for others.

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Because that is what it is. Theatre trips have become more expensive than ever, so you expect to be able to hear what’s going on. “Treat others as you would be treated” is a rule that has stuck with me since childhood, and I simply cannot fathom why it’s not ingrained on every single person’s mind. It’s a no-brainer. We’re not in Shakespeare’s time; the theatre industry has moved on and so should people’s manners.

Many of the negative responses to the food ban seem to have come from people who review shows on a regular basis – it makes me think that some may have forgotten what it’s like to plan a theatre trip in advance without the luxury of a press ticket. It can be easier to shake things off when you’ve not had to spend your hard-earned cash.

Another argument against the ban that I’ve seen is that you should be able to focus on what’s going on in spite of eating noises, and that your attention span is questionable otherwise. Easier said than done with loud crunching during a quiet play – if it’s not you eating, you don’t know when the noise will come, for one thing. Also, if it is especially prolonged (or from several quarters) the concentration you expend trying to block it out has a detrimental effect on your experience of the show. You can’t escape to the world that’s being created without fear of getting jolted out of it by someone beginning an impromptu meal. Part of the theatre experience for me is getting immersed in the story and feeling like you’re the only person in the room – it’s a bit hard to do that with surround sound munching.

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In an ideal world, people would apply the manners they should have been taught at school and by their parents (they cost nothing), and lose themselves in theatre for a couple of hours. If they want to eat during the performance, fine, but take considerate precautions so as not to disturb others. But sadly, in our age of selfish entitlement, we can’t rely on anyone to think conscientiously. Until we can, measures such as the Harold Pinter Theatre’s are at the very least a good reminder – and I hope it starts to make people think twice before they treat an auditorium like it’s their living room.

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