Actors reveal worst stage interruptions


BBC News asked a number of leading actors to recall their most memorable on-stage interruption

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How do actors cope when a mobile phone - or worse - disrupts a performance? Here they share their horror stories.

"I just grit my teeth and bear it," says Sir Derek Jacobi on the subject of mobile phone interruptions.

"I can't do what several well-known actors have done - walk to the edge of the stage to say 'for God's sake turn your phone off!'"

Although most theatres implore patrons to switch off mobiles, plays can still get ruined by ringtones.

"Every theatre puts out an announcement, but it's amazing how many people are deaf to it," says Sir Derek.

Start Quote

A couple on the front row were far more interested in each other than they were in the work on the stage”

End Quote Michael Grandage, former Donmar artistic director

In 2012, it's not just been mobile phone interruptions that have made headlines.

In November, Sir Peter Hall apologised to Downton Abbey actress Laura Carmichael after he unintentionally disrupted her West End debut in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya.

The audience at the Vaudeville Theatre heard Sir Peter speaking loudly in the stalls during the play's emotional final scene. The 81-year-old later said he had been "disorientated" after falling asleep.

Not all interruptions come from the auditorium.

Simon Russell Beale had to leave the stage during a performance of Timon of Athens at the National Theatre in September after he slipped over and dislocated his finger.

"When I looked down my finger was like a Z shape," Beale recalls. "I said: 'ladies and gentleman, I think I've broken my hand.'"

Simon Russell Beale Simon Russell Beale slipped and fell during the second half of the play.

Beale was dressed as a "down and out" and smeared with tomatoes when he fell, so he took the time to shower and change out of his costume before going to hospital.

Hannah Waddingham, currently in Kiss Me, Kate at the Old Vic, says: "I've had plenty of accidents, with fire, a live mouse in my costume, but not anything from the audience."

Mobile phone interruptions, in her opinion, are "par for the course".

But actress Hattie Morahan, back next year as Nora in A Doll's House at the Young Vic, recalls an awkward opening night incident in Martin Crimp's The City at the Royal Court in 2008.

"In the first scene I had a very long speech and someone's phone went off very loudly and continued to ring. It's was in this tiny theatre and we almost stopped, but we just kept going. It went on for about five minutes!"

"Mobile phone interruptions don't happen as much as people think it does," says Julian Bird, chief executive of the Society of London Theatre. "When it hits the headlines it's when someone famous on stage stops the performance."

Start Quote

He snored for about 20 minutes. It got so bad the audience started to throw money at him”

End Quote

Perhaps the most famous example is when Richard Griffiths ordered a woman out of his West End play Heroes in 2005 after her mobile phone rang for a third time.

A year earlier, Griffiths had ordered a man out of the National Theatre when his phone went off for the sixth time during a performance of The History Boys.

"Phones go off all the time and if I'm speaking I tend to stop speaking and wait for it to finish and carry on," says Tamsin Greig, star of this year's West End transfer of Jumpy.

She admits her own phone went off once while she was in the audience at London's intimate 250-seat Donmar Warehouse

"I was sitting on the front row of the Donmar - literally the worst theatre space for it to go off," she cringes. "People make mistakes, I understand that, but we're all just stupid - just turn them off!"

The front row of the Donmar is the scene of another bizarre interruption, as the theatre's former artistic director Michael Grandage recalls.

"There was a horrific moment in one of our plays where a couple on the front row were far more interested in each other than they were in the work on the stage.

"The actors were having a terrible time because the audience wasn't looking at them, but at the two people making out.

"I didn't want to stop them enjoying themselves, so I asked them at the interval if they wanted to continue backstage. For some reason they got all respectful and decided they'd put it off until after the show!"


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  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    We're all human and make mistakes but its all about response. Forget to turn off your phone for whatever reason and it goes off somewhere unwelcome - appearring suitably mortified and turning it off quickly is the correct response, anything else is unacceptable. Mucking around with phones - even if silently - with bright screens is my current bugbear in the cinema, it's really distracting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    The signal from phones can also cause problems with some of the sound equipment & props used in theatres, so even if switched to silent they can cause issues. I stage managed prod's for 7 years and remember several where phones caused problems - once we used a plug-in doorbell which chimed every time someone's phone polled back to the mast and confused the cast no end. Please turn 'em off!

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    If the audience are warned at the start of a performance to switch their phones off, then there is absolutely no excuse. Any intertuption at all and the guest can spend the remainder of the performance in the bar...

    A win-win solution for everyone!

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    I once disturbed a performance of The Master Builder due to a terrible cough. Sir Patrick Stewart professionally ignored it, whilst fellow audience members kindly handed me sweets and drinks. I still feel extremely guilty about disturbing everyone to this day.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    Theatres and other venues where it is a requirement for mobile phones to be switched off should have a signal blocker so that the venue is a dead-zone for any transmission. That way it is 100% guaranteed there will not be any mobile phone disruptions. You can only do so much as remind people but there are always the idiots out there who spoil it for everyone.


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