Notebook - Rosie Millard

Theatre audiences, watch out: Maltesers, texting and iPods will earn you one of my death stares

Will you all just please shut up? I mean it quite politely, but I really mean it. I don't want to get all Kevin Spacey-like, or start shouting from the stage like Richard Griffiths did in The History Boys, but like those two great thespians I, too, have reached a point of no return regarding the behaviour of theatre audiences that cannot seem to sit through a play without chatting, eating, or taking calls on the phone.

This past weekend, I took my godson and daughter to see Coram Boy at the National Theatre. It's a complicated play, but not that complicated. And children like a decent plot they can get their teeth into. Pity, therefore, the pair of kids directly in front of us, whose mother could not resist giving them a major explanation of the plot every 15 seconds or so.

It went like this. Action on stage - three characters are thrown overboard. Mother (through sobs): "The orphans will be saved. Yes, they will! You just watch." Well, we are trying to, dear madam. Without your sotto voce explanations.

Perhaps it's linked with a gradual relaxation of audience mores; theatre producers think that "widening access" is all about giving people the liberty to bring plastic glasses chock full of ice into the auditorium, rather than altering the repertoire. And audiences have responded in kind. At Coram Boy, we were sitting next to someone rigged up to an iPod. Before that, at Billy Elliot, I had sat next to someone who was happily sending texts to friends during most of the performance.

Naturally, there are some who feel very strongly that the democratic zeal stimulated by big shows such as Billy Elliot, which run for ages and encourage discounted block bookings (groups otherwise sniffily known as "coach parties"), is very much part of the communal experience that is live theatre. I knew that Stephen Daldry, the show's director, would have been horrified if I had torn a strip off the texter, so I kept my peace.

Michael Billington, king critic of the Guardian, is not half so respectful, however. At a party this weekend he agreed with me that the discipline of theatre audiences is ghastly, and admitted to actually shouting at a texter whom he came across in the auditorium at Richard II last year. Or was it Don Carlos? Frankly, I get so wound up by people being noisy, rustling, eating and generally messing around in the red plush seats that it quite murders the play for me. Skylight, starring Michael Gambon? Ruined by someone eating Maltesers. The Herbal Bed by Peter Whelan? Ditto, by someone eating, of all things, a giant bag of tortilla chips. My husband is wearily familiar with me turning round and delivering death stares to some hapless offender and their bag of Haribos. I know, I'm hardline.

I have had my come-uppance, however. Attending a recital by the Feinstein Ensemble at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, I was horrified to hear a man chomping a giant sandwich right behind my left ear as the flautist Martin Feinstein, whom I had recently interviewed for Radio 4, started on a particularly beautiful, but tricky, Bach fugue. "Are you going to eat that sandwich throughout the concert?" I hissed. He was an elderly gentleman, and looked quite hurt. Afterwards, I went backstage to congratulate Martin. "Dear Rosie!" he said. "Have you met my father?" Yes. Eeek.

Rosie Millard was previously Arts Editor for the NS and a Theatre Critic. She was the Arts Correspondent for BBC News for 10 years and is now a broadsheet columnist. She lives in London with heaps of small children, which may partially explain her love of going to the theatre.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2006 issue of the New Statesman, We were wrong about Sharon