Smoking on stage: a handy guide for touring productions

Sunday 27 May 2007

The smell of the smoke is absolutely disgusting and makes the Whingers retch; the stink stays in their hair and on their clothes for days afterwards. Yes, you know what we are talking about: the use of HERBAL cigarettes on stage.

Many unpleasant evenings at the theatre have been made even more miserable thanks to this unintentionally Brechtian device which explodes all suspension of disbelief by planting in the audience’s mind only one thought: that the characters are smoking herbal cigarettes even though no-one actually smokes the things in real life.

Anyway, The Sunday Times today reports that “when the musical Grease opens in London’s West End this summer, and the teenage sweetheart Sandy draws on a symbolic cigarette, warning notices will be in place around the theatre alerting the audience to the danger she poses.”

In England the smoking ban comes into force on 1st July but English theatres have an exemption which means that real cigarettes can be smoked “if artistic integrity makes it appropriate” which raises more questions than it answers really. If artistic integrity is the key then entire shows will presumably be exempted from the exemptions: Wicked springs to mind.

Theatres will apparently have to make their own decisions about whether or not to warn audiences by displaying signs.

But really, The Sunday Times hasn’t thought this through. When the inevitable touring production opf Grease gets wheeled around the British Isles, there’s going to be an awful lot of reworking as they hop from region to region to stay within the law.

So the Whingers have thoughtfully provided this cut-out-and-keep handy guide to on-stage smoking in the British Isles:

  • ENGLAND: From 1st July, cigarettes can only be smoked “if artistic integrity makes it appropriate”
  • SCOTLAND: Realistic alternatives to cigarettes may be used.
  • WALES: The smoking ban applies to any lit substance in a form in which it could be smoked and therefore herbal cigarettes are not permitted.
  • NORTHERN IRELAND: No smoking at all, at all. UPDATE: 5 June 07: The Guardian reports that the law has been amended to allow the use of herbal cigarettes on stage.
  • REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: The use of herbal cigarettes is permitted.

It’s an artistic hot potato, that’s for sure. Last week BBC News reported that the Lyric Theatre in Belfast had asked playwright Brian Friel to redo stage directions for two scenes in his play Dancing at Lughnasa, during which a cigarette is smoked on stage. Apparently Friel has fallen foul of this thorny topic before in Newhaven, USA when half the audience walked out of a production of Faith Healer in protest at “a prolonged smoking scene”.

And at the Edinburgh Fringe last year there was a huge to-do when Mel Smith (right) – playing Winston Churchill in Allegiance – announced he was going to flout the law and smoke a cigar on stage. Smith capitulated when it emerged that the rebellion would have resulted in the venue’s artistic director being fined £1,000 and losing his Fringe licence permanently.

So we hope that has cleared it up for you. Basically the advice is to jettison all plans to put on plays which feature people smoking. So no more Noel Coward revivals, we’re afraid.

Aside from that, our advice to producers is to stick to open air theatre venues which presumably do not constitute a “wholly enclosed” or “substantially enclosed” public place so the actors can chain smoke to their heart’s delight.

Incidentally, we’d be interested to hear from the real blogging playwrights out there about their feelings on the matter. Will these various laws influence their writing? Will they produce regional versions? And what is “artistic integrity”?

Above: Now Voyager now a no-no for stage adaptation

3 Responses to “Smoking on stage: a handy guide for touring productions”


  1. I really don’t think this is that big an issue as there are few productions where smoking is integral to characterisation and anyone writing/adapting now should be able to convey the signals smoking indicates in another fashion. Yes, it was stupid not to include an exception for theatre/TV etc but this really shouldn’t be insurmountable and I’m sure for shows where smoking is significant a creative or technical solution can be found. I’ve seen and reviewed over thirty shows in Scotland since th ban came into force and I haven’t yet felt that something was missing because a character wasn’t smoking.


  2. “I’ve seen and reviewed over thirty shows in Scotland since th ban came into force and I haven’t yet felt that something was missing because a character wasn’t smoking” – I presume Allegiance wasn’t one of the 30+. It was frankly absurd and even insulting to watch Smith-as-Churchill forced to pick up a cigar, roll it between his fingers and then affect to be distracted by conversation from actually lighting the bugger, especially when later in the play he fulminates against those moral guardians who would regulate what we may or may not eat, drink or smoke.

    I don’t think it’s that big an issue, either, but I start from the oppsite presumption: that one or two cigs within thge space of a couple of hours, even in a relatively confined studio space, are not going to expose anyone to a measurable health risk. And I agree absolutely with the Whingers about the dreaded Honeyrose Special: the sense of smell is the one most closely bound up with memory, and the pong of Bolivian Unicyclist’s Jockstrap (or coltsfoot, as Honeyrose euphemistically term it) is phenomenally effective at bollixing up the suspension of disbelief. So when I say “not that big an issue”, I mean that the matter of exemption really should be a no-brainer.


  3. Agree, Ian. We live in an age in which councils cut down trees lest they get sued by somebody who has a conker fall on them and the government is considering putting health warning labels on wine. On the other hand, it now seems unthinkable that we used to be able to smoke on buses and in tubes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s