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Fights in the theatre aisles and falling sets: why stage life is the real drama

Benedict Cumberbatch showed his frustration with theatregoers filming him treading the boards. Ivan Little recalls some famous local theatrical gaffes (including a few of his own)

By Ivan Little

He's maybe more of a ham than a Hamlet. But while John Linehan would never claim to be a Benedict Cumberbatch, his alter ego, May McFettridge, has shared the Sherlock star's frustration over audience members filming her on stage.

Last week, Cumberbatch pleaded with people to stop recording his portrayal of Hamlet at the Barbican in London, saying the red lights from mobile phones had been distracting and mortifying.

In Belfast with May McFettridge, it was a prominent Ulster politician with a camcorder who will go down in pantomime history as one of the few punters ever to silence the quick-thinking, fast talking Belfast housewife at the Grand Opera House.

John Linehan diplomatically declines to name the politician, but adds: "All I will say is that he was a well-known public figure and, May being May, I was able to get tore into him. I said he couldn't record the show for copyright reasons and because it spoiled it for the audience.

"He said sorry and put the camera down. But 20 minutes later, it was back up again and I gave him another earful."

But if John thought that was that, oh no it wasn't. His problems weren't behind him.

For in the second act, the politician did an encore with his camera, completing a hat-trick of hassle.

"I said, 'There's just no talking you, is there?' And I let it go at that. It was so bad that I thought it wasn't worth giving him another hard time," John says.

But while that was an isolated incident in the 1990s, the digital revolution has made phonecalls and filming an almost nightly nightmare.

"Everyone has a mobile with a camera on it nowadays," says John, and even though theatre staff do their best, it's almost impossible for them to stamp down on all the panto pirates.

Texters can also throw actors off their lines. McFettridge once asked a woman in the front row if her messages were vital, or about drugs. But John has had even more astonishing experiences of the mobile menaces.

A man once told him that he had enjoyed his act at a wedding which he'd seen on a smartphone recording on a big screen ... in Spain.

Cumberbatch is just the latest in a long line of actors who've lost the plot over mobiles.

Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey told off a theatregoer for letting a phone ring during a courtroom speech in a play, eventually coming out of character and saying, "If you don't answer that, I will."

Jenny Seagrove added a line to a Noel Coward play to give out about mobiles - even though they hadn't even been invented at the time of the drama.

Belfast actress Caroline Curran, who has been appearing in raucous comedies like Fifty Shades of Red, White and Blue and Dirty Dancing at Le Shebeen, agrees that mobiles are becoming more and more of a nuisance.

"And it's not just the small phones," she says "I've seen people filming our plays on iPads, which are so big and the glare off them is so bright that it's difficult for any actor to miss.

"It can be very off-putting. And I can understand why Benedict Cumberbatch said what he did. Recently a colleague had to tell audience members to put their cameras away." Caroline has also had to stop a show and has witnessed an audience member being turfed out of a theatre not because of phones, but because of a fight.

"The woman was so drunk that she was escorted out and attacked a member of staff before coming back into the auditorium where she went for someone in the stalls who had told her to keep quiet," she tells me. "I had to call for security."

The story is also told about an Irish actor who got his revenge on a persistent heckler when the lights came up after the play by punching his lights out. And the home of Irish theatre, the Abbey in Dublin, isn't immune to the shame of phones.

Dan Gordon, who has just finished a run in The Shadow of a Gunman in the theatre, says: "We were getting phones ringing and beeping all the time even though we had the normal recorded announcement before curtain up for people to turn them off. The company then had to send the front-of-house manager out on stage to deliver a personal message urging phone-users to do the right thing because the noise was distracting the actors and ruining things for the audience.

"Even then, we still had phones buzzing, and we did have videoing, too. It's aggravating and it's getting worse."

Former Ballykissangel star Frankie McCafferty, who lives in Belfast, has just finished performances in a Samuel Beckett play, Ohio Impromptu, in an unusual setting in an outhouse on Devenish Island in Fermanagh.

"The audience had to go over by boat and the whole idea was about leaving civilisation behind and not bringing technology with you," he says. "The piece was very atmospheric, and part of it was in darkness and depended on utter silence, but there were little beeps from phones coming in from time to time.

"To me, the theatre is an almost sacred place, not somewhere for mobile phones. Filming a performance is way out of order."

But Ciaran Nolan, who won rave reviews for his one-man show Man in the Moon, says he believes Cumberbatch was a victim of his own popularity.

"The people who are going to see him aren't necessarily Shakespeare fans and they don't understand the etiquette of the theatre," adds Ciaran, who has his own special way of dealing with difficult people in the stalls.

"I just give them a look which tells them to stop what they're doing," he says.

But, occasionally, even he has to admit defeat: "My character in Man in the Moon was called Sean Doran, and I once asked a rhetorical question about what people were calling me behind my back. Just at that, a girl shouted out 'Jamie Dornan'. Her timing was perfect. It took everything I had not to laugh."

Alan McKee, who's been touring alongside his comic partner, Conor Grimes (both right), in a play called St Mungo's Luganulk about Ireland's least-successful GAA club, thinks older audience members are becoming more responsible, but he adds an important caveat.

"We've had young people in the front rows recording parts of the play, but I think it's a generational thing," Alan says.

"They're so used to videoing everything on their phones that it doesn't enter their heads not to do it at the theatre.

"But it can be annoying for the audience and for the cast. Once you notice someone filming a show, it's hard not to keep looking back at them to see if it's still going on.

"Photographs regularly appear on Facebook pages within hours of a performance, and they never capture a show at its best."

Alan's most unsettling experience on stage was nothing to do with the intrusion of a phone, but rather the intrusion of a man on the performing space. It was a moment I shared.

During a performance of the play The History of the Troubles (accordin' to my Da) in west Belfast, the man popped up from the audience to walk past our three-man cast into the backstage area, where he sent huge loudspeaker stands flying with a massive thud.

The show stopped as security staff hustled him away and it was later established he'd been having an epileptic fit.

In Londonderry, at the Millennium Forum, the show-stopper was a fire alarm going off and the house lights coming on, forcing the cast to head for the emergency exits where we chatted with the audience for 20 minutes before the alert was declared a hoax.

It became the niggling norm that phones would ring during performances and red-faced patrons would scramble in their pockets or handbags to silence them. Amazingly, however a number of people actually answered. Just before one emotional scene, where my character had to talk about a death in his family, one woman near the front said to her phone-caller, "I'm at the Opera House. I can't talk. It's the History of the Troubles. No, it's not bad." Which was faint praise in a way, but totally unwanted praise at the wrong time.

During another play at the Opera House, a woman came on stage as the rest of the cast and I were taking our bows. She proceeded to go along the line giving each of us a hug.

Alan McKee was once acting his heart out at the old Lyric Theatre when a bulb exploded showering him and his colleagues with glass.

"It was mid-Troubles and we didn't have a clue what it was, but we struggled on to the end when all became clear," he says.

Other accidents do happen on stage. During a Waterfront panto, I collided with an actress who twisted an ankle and ended up on crutches.

And I once cut my hand open on a nail coming downstairs in an Ulster comedy at the old Arts Theatre.

To ensure the audience didn't see the blood, I stuck my hand in my pocket, forgetting that shortly afterwards I had to take off my trousers, revealing white long johns, which were covered in crimson.

At the same theatre, an actor once passed out as I addressed a crowd as a preacher. The audience thought it was part of the story.

And at the Whitla Hall, during a student production of Hamlet, I brought the house down as I sent part of the set crashing, ensuring that something really was rotten in the state of Denmark.

And during another production, a sound effect of a gunshot failed to materialise just as another actor pointed a weapon at my head in the very last scene of the play. Someone in the cheap seats shouted out "Bang!" and what should have been a moment of high drama became a farce.

My most galling gaffe, however, was at the Group Theatre, where I was playing the part of a terror victim who had been blinded and partially paralysed by a shooting.

To help me with my portrayal, I donned dark glasses, kept my eyes closed during the play and relied on an actress to give me a tap on the shoulder to tell me when the curtains had come across at the interval.

She, however, jumped the gun, and as I did my Lazarus leap from the wheelchair I realised that the curtains had snagged on a chair, giving the audience a clear view of my miraculous recovery.

There were no mobile phones in those days to capture my chagrin, but there was a newspaper reviewer in the stalls and, unlike me, she saw it all and proceeded to let thousands of people read all about it, too.

Belfast Telegraph


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