Here’s one you can try at home: Carefully brew some tea with cold water (not too strong) and pour a short measure into a glass tumbler. Congratulations. You now have “whiskey”. Too bitter? Why not try some flat ginger ale instead? Delish. For a very special occasion you can add a couple of alka-seltzers to fizzier ginger ale and – hey presto! – you now have “champagne” with enough effervescence to pop a cork.
These tried-and-tested recipes for phoney fizz and substitute spirits may not sound tempting, but in the ersatz and penurious celebrations of the theatre, they do avoid the expense and pitfalls of the real thing. There was once a play that sloshed around with so much punch, the actors would be plastered by act three and the audience sent home.
Everyone knows the old cliche about starving actors, but if you’ve been near a theatre in recent weeks and witnessed the nightly devourings of meat pies, fish and chips, chocolate bars and rasher sandwiches, the stage seems like a good place to get a decent meal. Any frugal stage manager can give you the ingredients for an indigestible feed, from the cutout goblets and wooden fruit of many a banquet scene, to custard pies filled with shaving foam. But somewhere down the line came naturalism, with a side order of reality.
Pasteboard pies were banished from the stage, spotted GB Shaw in the run-up to the 20th century, “by the growth of that power of accurate observation which is commonly called cynicism”. Fifty years later, Brendan Behan could say, with a healthy dose of accurate observation, that the Abbey was the best-fed theatre company in the world because every time there was an onstage crisis someone put on a pan of rashers.
All of this is to explain why I have recently started worrying about John Kavanagh’s arteries. Kavanagh, a wiry-thin actor currently performing in the Abbey’s The Cavalcaders, is required to tuck into a bag of chips during every performance. By my calculations, this means he will have had 47 bags of chips before the run is over – an undertaking that might have daunted even Morgan Spurlock.
Kavanagh, it must be said, seems to discreetly abandon the bag three or four chips in, perhaps aware of the fate of Rosetta LeNoire, the American actress who gained 23lb (10.4 kilos) from eating chocolate mints in a production of Anna Lucasta, and died some years later from diabetes.
Why the Abbey must nip down to the chipper every night, while the Gate stages a much trimmer musical about the tastiest snack since Soylent Green, comes down to a different take on conspicuous consumption. Musicals always avoid the stodge of realism, but the fantastically macabre meat pies of Sweeney Todd just beggar belief. Not even a stray hair or occasional bit of fingernail can deter Todd’s hungry Londoners from their gloriously unreal puffed-up savouries. Although you will not see an ounce of flesh, they are attacked with such glee you can almost taste the stuff.
On the stage, at least, we’re prepared to swallow anything.