All the world's a crush-bar

Have you ordered your drinks for the interval? If not, you'd better hurry: more and more West End plays are simply missing them out.
Click to follow
On stage at the Piccadilly, it has reached that moment in Sir Peter Hall's sell-out production of Filumena when Judi Dench's three sons, Umberto, Riccardo and Michele, not yet knowing they are her three sons, have a punch-up. Soon after, in the prompt corner to the side of the stage, the deputy stage manager, who is "calling the show", sends a signal out to the front-of-house staff.

Upstairs in the art deco dress-circle bar, Georgina Rich, 22, a jazz and contemporary dancer by training, quickens her pace. About 100 interval drinks have been laid out. Anything that is served cold has waited until after the DSM's signal. Georgina puts out the cold beers, pours out the chilled wine and scoops out ice for the glasses that stand in neat rows next to the lines of baby tonics.

Georgina looks as elegant as the Neapolitans on stage. A black Dorothy Perkins cocktail dress has recently replaced the standard white shirt, black waistcoat and bow-tie. The dress has also improved her tips. Not that Georgina thinks she does as well as her colleague, Natalie Lequin, 23, a trainee journalist in Harrow, who works the other end of the dress- circle bar. Natalie has the advantage of a French accent (she is from the Alps), and sometimes - Georgina jokes - wears a red bra.

In London's commercial theatre district, as the shows are cranking up to their climaxes, any time after 8.30pm, out-of-work actors, dancers and students are rushing round the front-of-house bars, shovelling ice out of the Icematic machine beneath the bar - next to the basin with the Morning Fresh washing-up liquid and the Imperial Leather soap - into the glasses standing behind the order slips.

If you were to go on a West End interval-crawl, you could do it in under an hour. You might start at 8.40pm at the London Palladium after 70 minutes of Saturday Night Fever, then move on at 8.55pm to the Aldwych after 50 minutes of Whistle Down the Wind, or 9pm at the Drury Lane after 75 minutes of Miss Saigon, or 9.02pm at Her Majesty's, after 77 minutes of Phantom of the Opera, and finish up at 9.10pm at the Adelphi, after 70 minutes of Chicago.

At the Piccadilly, it's 60 minutes in, on the dot of nine. Judi Dench threatens to kill Michael Pennington. There is a burst of clapping and - a split second into the applause - the first member of the audience is through the double doors, crossing the patterned red carpet of the bar, lighting up and inhaling deeply. This is where the plot speeds up.

Dame Judi probably has not reached her dressing room by the time, seven seconds later, that the first traces of nicotine have reached the brains of the fastest smokers in the audience and triggered the release of dopamine, that induce a sense of chemical pleasure that is more reliable than a West End comedy. For those other low-level dependents, in need of a boost of ethyl alcohol to anaesthetise any negative reactions they made be having to the preceding 60 minutes, the wait is longer. Not just because the Blanc de Blancs or Cabernet Sauvignon has a more circuitous biochemical trip to make. The plonk has a picaresque journey to make through the stomach walls and intestines, the portal vein and vena cava, on and up to the right side of the heart. Only then can it accelerate to the brain, where it performs - so doctors say - a role similar to chloroform.

The first stage is to get to the front of the bar. This entails standing just behind, either on the left or the right, of the person currently being served. When they reverse out, holding up four glasses to their face ("sorry", "so sorry") they must reverse into your rival, standing just behind on the other side, making him back away. Once you have elbowed your way into the gap you have to catch Georgina's eye. This isn't easy. Most of the time she shows you her eyelids. Her eyes are fixed on the drinks, the money and the IBM till. You get one look when she takes your order, one when she takes your money, and one when she hands back the change.

Georgina has about 50 drinks to serve in five minutes: one every six seconds. It would be quicker if people did not produce credit cards (not accepted here) or pull out chequebooks ("Does Piccadilly have one 'c' or two?"). Rudeness doesn't faze her. "When it's busy, it's not a problem," she says. "You're only talking to them for two seconds." Most people aren't rude. "They want you to serve them." It doesn't help shouting your orders while her back is turned or leaning your elbows on the bar and rolling pounds 20 notes in her face. Georgina and Natalie have a system, working their way from the till at the side to the middle and then back. They say they know how long you have been waiting.

You can profile a show by the drinks they sell in the interval. Filumena is a gin-and-tonic show. Ken Campbell's Pidgin Macbeth (also at the Piccadilly) is a bottled-beer show. When Cabaret played at the Donmar, the night-club atmosphere spread to the bar and it became a champagne show. (At the Devonshire Arms, across the street from the Piccadilly, the publican will tell you whether or not he wants to see a show by the drinks that the theatre audience come in and order. The Elvis audience ordered beer. He liked them. The Hank Marvin audience ordered bottled beer. He liked them, too. The Filumena audience ordered G & Ts. He doesn't particularly want to see the show.) Instead of critical round-ups, shows could be categorised by brand-names. It would certainly help sponsors.

But this shorthand is under threat. More and more West End shows are losing their intervals. There's An Inspector Calls (105 minutes) at the Garrick, Art (88 minutes) at the Wyndhams, The Chairs (90 minutes), The Old Neighborhood (75 minutes), Via Dolorosa (95 minutes) and The Weir (105 minutes) at the Royal Court Downstairs, Duke of York's. (The Weir offers the piquant example of watching actors sitting around in a pub drinking while not getting a chance to do so yourself.) The Donmar has given us an interval-less Electra (105 minutes), How I Learned to Drive (90 minutes) and The Blue Room (100 minutes). The Almeida is giving us an interval-less Phedre (100 min) and Britannicus (101 mins) at the Albery. At the National, Betrayal (90 mins) is playing without an interval. This week's West End opening, Jesus My Boy, starring Tom Conti, runs only 70 minutes. Next year the Donmar produces Tennessee Williams's Suddenly Last Summer without an interval.

West End management - those who own the theatres rather than produce the shows - are facing a tough question: is this the beginning of the end of the middle? Traditionally, there is a 70 per cent mark-up on drinks. Without an interval, the theatre management can lose pounds 10,000 a week. That is why some theatre managements, when negotiating the rent with the show's producer, put in a no-interval penalty clause. Or charge a higher rent. The length of the show also affects the ticket prices. Laurence Myers, producer of My Boy Jesus, has top ticket prices of pounds 18.50. The box-office staff tell customers the show is 70 minutes. "We advertise its length," says Myers, "or its shortness." By comparison, tickets in the stalls and dress circle at Filumena are pounds 30. Filumena is 18 minutes longer - excluding interval-time - and pounds 11.50 more expensive. But its cast is 12 times the size.

Myers believes people prefer short shows, in and out. "No one goes to the theatre for the interval, that's for sure." Historically, the West End interval developed in these mainly Edwardian theatres, where the audience, wrote Henry James, looked "as if it had come to the play in its own carriage, after a dinner of beef and pudding". You wouldn't have caught Euripides putting an interval in the middle of The Bacchae. The sheer technical feat of getting 15,000 theatre-goers in and out of the Theatre of Dionysus would have quashed that. Shakespeare's Globe audiences were sold beer, nuts, bread and apples throughout the performance. It was during the Restoration, when theatre had moved indoors, that intervals - with musicians playing - allowed candles to be replaced, cut or relit. From there it was a small step to paying pounds 2.80 for a glass of Vin de Pays.

But with the West End interval came men who wrote curtain lines. Noel Coward premiered Blithe Spirit at the Piccadilly in 1941. It is a perfect play for two intervals, as during each one, you have no idea what is going to happen next. But, with the decline of the well-made play came the decline of the interval. In the post-war years the interval has become less necessary for production purposes - scenes changes and costume changes - and more necessary for financial purposes. But more than any other show, Art proved the viability of interval-less theatre.

Twelve minutes into the interval at the Piccadilly, and no one else wants a drink. Georgina has already turned to fill in the stock form. Minutes later, as the three-minute bell rings (that's five minutes before the next act), the bar empties. The second half of Filumena runs only 28 minutes. It takes a good half hour to clear the bar and cash up. When the audience next emerge, their backs are turned to her. Some lean against the bar, facing into the room, while others put on their coats. Standing behind the bar, next to a couple of plastic crates and two full bin-liners, Georgina smokes a Marlboro Light and counts out a hefty wodge of pounds 5s, pounds 10s, pounds 20s and a pounds 50. Bar takings are one of the key ingredients of West End theatre. But showbiz is tough. For 10 minutes this evening, everyone wanted to catch Georgina's eye. Half an hour later, no one gives her a second glance.