THEATRE / Things that make you go oooh] bah] ugh] and pish]: The sounds actors make when they're not talking can say far more than words. Georgina Brown reports

KENNETH WILLIAMS did it with swooning and swooping oooohhs; Frankie Howerd with a lugubrious, constipated ooooooooogghh emanating from somewhere deep in his trousers; Fenella Fielding does it with a strangulated oooooooooooh as if she's being pinched and loving it; Sir Michael Hordern has been knighted for his services to groaning - his doddery dirges and strange upward inflexions that vanish in a dying fall becoming a language in their own right. Inimitable, barely transcribable even by a phonetician with the dedication of Professor Higgins, this wordless play is the supreme skill of an actor.

Any reasonably competent performer can trot out the words the playwright has supplied, with an inflection here and a flourish there. It is on those occasions when words fail the writer and they delegate the task of fleshing out the vacuous 'Oh]', the bland 'Ah]', that the actor's bluff can be called.

One of the theatre's subtlest harrumph-ers, Robin Bailey, is currently sounding out Sir William Gower in Pinero's charming backstage comedy, Trelawney of the Wells, at the National Theatre in London. Pinero has issued this spoiled domestic tyrant with an exclamation for every occasion - Tut-tut-tut, Hey] Ho- ho] Pa-a-a-h] Eh? Oh-h-h-h] Sssh] He, he, he] Isch, isch, isch] Ah-h-h-h] Hey? Bah] Ugh] Pi-i-i-i-ish] In Bailey's mouth they are translated into sighs heavy with irritation, disapproval and self-pity. Even from beneath an ironed newspaper where Sir William seeks post-prandial repose, Bailey can make his presence felt with a small but determined snore. But Sir William's finest and funniest moment comes when he wears the chains and sword that once belonged to his hero, Edmund Kean, when the legendary actor played Richard III. 'I remember him as if it were last night,' he begins, pathetically affecting a stoop and a limp, his vague splutterings finally running out into '. . . a horse. . . '. His feelings, so long held under wraps, overwhelm him and, for a few seconds, he is soundless, lost, as it were, for noises.

Bailey claims there is nothing much to it. 'I just make the sounds Pinero writes sound like life,' he says (and I swear I heard a grunt - of mild but discernible exasperation). 'I don't know how to say 'pish' but I know what he means so I relate it to the sounds you use every day. It's all instinct - I'm like the caterpillar who danced. One day he was asked how do you know which leg to put first? - and from that moment he never danced again.'

He discovered the value of this instinct for the extraneous sound early in his career. 'I remember a notice by Ken Tynan that said 'a little exhalation of breath was worth the price of admission'. I was playing a comic vicar in The Silver Whistle at the Duchess 40 years ago. A very poor play.' But his harrumphing reached its apogee a couple of years ago in Bulgakov's play Black Snow. As Vasilevich, the megalomaniac theatre director, he conveyed infinite nuances of contempt and irritation with sepulchral snorts, absent-minded groans, weary whinnies, neurotic neighs, baleful bleats and menacing murmurs, always in character. As the critic John Gross wrote: 'The beauty is in the detail - the readjusting of the pince-nez, the strange noises that emanate every so often, as of a camel moaning in its sleep.'

The fruitiest groaner of our time is, without rival, Donald Sinden. As a comedian he swills his words from cheek to cheek like a wine-taster, punctuating speeches with suggestive grumps and growls; as a tragedian he puts meat on the barest phrase and then chomps and savours it.

'In one of Edward Albee's plays, my first line was 'Bid-bid-bid-bidder- bid-bid-bidder]'. We've all made that sort of sound, an absent-minded muttering. But, oh golly, Shakespeare is much harder.' Shakespeare frequently gives the actor no more than an 'oh' or an 'ah', empty spaces in which to place some sense. 'You have to find the right sound - it's part of the job of the interpretative artist. When Lear comes in carrying the dead Cordelia in his arms he has to say 'Howl, howl, howl, howl]' . I chose to read that as a stage direction and howled like a dog. An actor approaches a line like that with some trepidation - it must sound awful in the right sense. You can make a huge sound of the small 'O' that begins Henry V and set the tone of longing that persists through the speech - it's much longer than one syllable.'

Farces, by contrast, says Sinden, can't incorporate the smallest unscripted moan or groan. 'The script has already been pared down to the minimum number of syllables. You must always have five consonances in a tag line - you've got to have those consonants clicking out for an audience to follow.'

Hay Fever, Coward's comedy of lamentably bad manners, gapes with holes to be filled by the actress playing Jackie, the flapping flapper girl thrown into the nightmare Bliss household. Coward provides a few clues, with abundant use of such adverbial instructions as 'winsomely' and 'timorously', but the actor has much to do. Conventional language has broken down because the appalling Blisses ignore it. In the current West End show, Sara Crowe's best moments are strained small talk or no talk at all. As Jackie, reduced to a state of almost catatonic embarrassment, she mews, shrieks, twitters, each inarticulate squeak an essay in desperation, each strangulated gurgle conveying rage and fury. When Jackie comes down for breakfast after a night in a Hammer house of horror, she lifts the lid of one of the side dishes and releases a gulping whimper of undigested nausea.

'I don't think of the sound I have to make,' says Crowe. 'It comes out of the way I'm feeling, which is distraught. The noises are the top layer of my performance. You can go for a particular laugh and map that in, but the sounds vary from day to day. You pick them up from listening to the minute things that people say that mean something quite big.'

According to Alan Strachan, Hay Fever's director, you must give the actors their head. 'With a comic stylist such as Coward or Pinter you wouldn't want to overdecorate and upset the very precise rhythms of the speech. The writer gives you a trampoline; you need an actor with a good comic instinct to mine it, deepen the texture, and a director to pull the plug out when it gets too much.'

These special effects can bring out the best in critics who are forced to ransack their imaginations for an appropriate representation. One described Crowe as 'half like a strangulated deb, half like a teddy-bear pressed in the tummy button'; another that she 'hints at what you would get if you sent a nervous chipmunk to a bad finishing school'.

Some roles demand the most sparing use of non-verbal embroidery. In the current West End production of The Importance of Being Earnest, Maggie Smith's awesome Lady Bracknell pushes perfectly pitched and shaped phrases through pursed lips with no additional frills. Inflection is everything, so when you get a bit extra, you can't fail to notice it. Claire Skinner gets marvellous mileage out of Wilde's bald 'Oh]' emitted when Cecily discovers that Earnest is in fact Algernon. She runs a few steps upstage and gags into her hand with all the stifling intensity that she brings to the part.

Tragedy is arguably more difficult. 'I think one of the greatest sounds I've ever heard on stage was in Oedipus in that terrible moment when Lawrence Olivier is told he's married to his mother and has had children by her,' says Donald Sinden. 'Larry listened to the man talking to him then he turned his head to one side and uttered a terrible blood-curdling cry and stayed there. Then he turned his head to the other side and made an identical cry. Very bold. What can a man say but that?'

Paul Taylor, the Independent's critic, highlights Brian Cox's interpretation of Lear's line of howls as the most moving version he has yet witnessed. 'In an inspired piece of cheating, Cox took that line as a piece of dialogue rather than as a stage direction. Trundling her body in on his wheelchair, he shuffled up to people on stage and quietly urged them to howl, speaking the word in a puzzled way as though quite at a loss at to how to explain their silence. It was an absolutely heartbreaking and illuminating moment. How could anyone look on this sight, Cox's Lear implied, and not instinctively howl? A moving paradox, then, that he conveyed this by himself persisting with speech where speech normally fails.'

The interpretation of such cries can be an excellent indicator of a production's level of thoughtfulness. 'In Much Ado About Nothing, there's a famous moment when Beatrice suddenly, shockingly, tells Benedick to kill Claudio,' says Paul Taylor. 'His response is 'Ha] Not for the wide world'. I've heard that performed with varying levels of shock / incredulity / outrage. But when Kenneth Branagh played Benedick, it escaped from him as the kindly sorrowing sigh of one whom, loving Beatrice, both knew why she had been wrought to this pitch and why she must now be calmed down.'

Very different this, from the ineptitude of the actress who, in a dreadful production of Antony and Cleopatra, turned Charmian's final exclamation, 'ah soldier]', into a sound that you could only decode as 'by gum, if it weren't for the fact that I've just nobly committed suicide, I wouldn't half mind a look at what you have under your armour'.

(Photograph omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing