top of page

September 23, 1987

Actors and playwrights are often stung by critical comment, but few sting back. Now, however, Elizabeth Sharland-Jones retaliates. She has written and directed a play which will open today, ''To Kill a Critic,'' which she describes as a ''murder mystery about the death of a Broadway critic after he 'kills' a new play.'' The cast includes Maggie Wood, Robert Zaleski, Ken Kerman, Margaret Mackey, Jordan Fischer and Jim Farley. Performances are at the American Theater of Actors (757-1799), 314 West 54th Street, at 8 P.M. tonight through Saturday. Admission $8.

Darling, you were delicious

When the curtain falls, toast and kedgeree are favourite comfort foods, Bee Wilson learns

The Times of London

DURING those months when Nicole Kidman was slithering on stage at the Donmar Warehouse in Sam Mendes’s production of The Blue Room, she astounded the London theatre world. Not just because of her Viagran nudity. No, Kidman’s real break with the mores of the London stage was in ordering sushi take-out from Nobu in Mayfair, instead of supping on toast in the green room or eating kedgeree at Le Caprice. 

The West End actor is a fragile beast when it comes to food, as a new book on the subject by Elizabeth Sharland confirms. Unlike the Hollywood actor, whose regimen is determined almost entirely by the producer’s desire for them to cut carbs and lose inches, the stage actor’s diet has traditionally been governed by the search for comfort. Forced to eat at odd times to fit in their performances, the stage labourer treats his or her stomach as if it were a cross between an invalid and a child, who needs to be fed, yet at the same time treated like a delicate flower. 

Noël Coward, the patron saint of luvvies, used to collapse with “something eggy on toast on a tray”. Sharland, a theatrical producer, always made tea and cinnamon toast backstage, sprinkling sugar and cinnamon over melting butter. Actors would then confide their favourite comfort foods to her, which nearly always involved toast. Other favourites were rice pudding, trifle and spotted dick. 

For the out-of-work or impoverished actor, comfort eating has to come cheap. Before he got his big break as Henry V at the RSC, Kenneth Branagh (soon to delight us in the new Harry Potter film) subsisted on burgers with fried onions and liver casserole cooked for an eternity in seedy digs in Willesden. 

Many of the greatest theatrical types never outgrow this style of eating. Cicely Courtneidge and Sir Terence Rattigan both loved steak-and-kidney pudding. Dame Sybil Thorndike’s favourite was “everyday stew”: “Take anything that’s left over, fry it all up with vegetables of any or every sort, put any flavouring you like (Worcester sauce preferred), cook and cook and cook till it’s a gorgeous mess. And if you don’t like it, I’ve no use for you at all: for it’s lovely”. 

Many thespian comfort eaters, however, have been rather more fastidious than this. Dame Judi Dench, for example, is fond of poached salmon and can’t do without her tea with honey (terribly good for restoring a larynx strained from an evening’s emoting) and her royal jelly. Sir Ralph Richardson always had to have Spanish omelette — that restoring mixture of eggs, oil and potatoes — when he dined at the Connaught, after which he might retire early, complaining of being bored. 

After getting an Equity card, Sharland claims, “the next success in becoming a professional actor is being able to afford dinner in Rules, Le Caprice, The Ivy or The Savoy and waving to fellow thespians who too are ready to follow in the footsteps of the famous”. Here, the scope for comfort eating becomes altogether grander. 

At The Ivy, you can order caviar and steak like Maria Callas; at The Savoy you can nibble on smoked salmon and foie gras like every legend of the West End who ever held a fork. Or, at Rules, the oldest restaurant in London, you can sit where Sir John Gielgud (God rest his soul) always sat, and eat his favourite oysters. The food Gielgud offered when he entertained was also luxurious, in an obvious sort of way: smoked salmon, asparagus or cold soup, followed by duck purchased from either Fortnum & Mason or Marks & Spencer; and for special occasions, an enormous pyramid of profiteroles for dessert. 

Given the strange hours they keep, one of the best eating options for actors is afternoon tea. Gone are the days when matinée audiences disturbed productions by rattling teatrays brought to them by usherettes; but on non-matinée days, performers can still enjoy a spot of cake. 

Perhaps the greatest thespian tea-eater of them all was Robert Morley, the great character actor and father of the theatre critic Sheridan Morley, who padded out his splendidly curved form with copious four o’clock collations. For his ordinary workaday teas he ate only “flapjacks or crumpets, shortcake and gingerbread, Swiss roll and chocolate biscuits and one or two cakes which need eating up”. But on Sundays, tea in the Morley household was “an elaborate affair, with ginger snaps filled with cream and playmate biscuits and cucumber and pâté sandwiches and scones and jam and the cakes of course are fresh, like the brown bread”. 

Morley lamented the passing of Fuller’s walnut cake, the centrepiece of many backstage teas, and felt that teashops were going downhill. 

But for the very brightest stage stars, teashops have always been too staid a pleasure. Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier did their comfort eating at glittering house parties or out and about in the West End. Despite her tiny waist, Leigh could really put it away and loved eating lamb with fennel at Le Caprice. As for Sir Larry, he cooked the crème de la crème of thespian comfort food: blanquette de veau, which he recommended serving with “the creamiest of mashed potatoes and the newest of peas” and drinking with it “a light, very cold white wine”. 

Sir Larry understood the theatre of the table. He did not go so far as Edmund Kean, the flamboyant 19th-century performer, who varied his diet according to the part he was playing — roast pork for tyrants, raw beef for murderers — but Olivier was not averse to a little drama at dinner. 

On one occasion, after the death of Vivien Leigh, he ordered an enormous meal, composed of all her favourite dishes: a vast salad with blue-cheese dressing, a huge steak, onion rings and three scoops of vanilla ice-cream covered with crème de menthe. But instead of eating any of it, he simply stared at his food, watching the ice-cream as it mournfully melted in its bowl. This gives new meaning to the phrase “restaurant as theatre”. 

On Books: Take well-guided tour where creativity dwells

By Scott Eyman
Palm Beach Post Books Editor
March 19, 2010 

Elizabeth Sharland's new book Passionate Pilgrimages: From Chopin to Coward is a compendium of her tours of the houses of artists that have meant the most to her. There is time spent in Jamaica, at Noel Coward's house, but I was particularly interested in her visit to what used to be the London apartment of Ivor Novello, the star of Hitchcock's The Lodger, and one of the great matinee idols of the English stage, who is too little remembered these days. His apartment was above the Strand theater and is now the office of the English theatrical producer Duncan Weldon.

Sharland takes us through Somerset Maugham's Villa Mauresque as well as George Bernard Shaw's rather severe house at Ayot St. Lawrence. Some of these stories are more autobiographical than biographical, as in her story of living in Tangier in the hope of getting to know Paul Bowles and his wife, only to find out that Bowles was spending that year in New York. 

In spite of the occasional missed connection, it's a stimulating guided tour by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide. 

bottom of page