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)