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The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion - Peter Craw­ley on con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion

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.

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