What exactly do we expect when we go to the theatre? Something compelling, entertaining, thoughtful or moving to watch and listen to, obviously. But what about the physical surroundings of the experience?
I was at the National for Hedda Gabler last week and I’d forgotten just how comfortable its seating is. It enables you to stop thinking about where you actually are and immerse yourself totally in the action. The Rose Theatre Kingston where I saw The Wind in the Willows earlier this month isn’t bad at all either. Neither is The Capitol, Horsham where I saw Aladdin yesterday. And the Marlowe at Canterbury where I’m a regular is pretty comfortable too. Compare that with The Noel Coward Theatre in St Martin’s Lane. I reviewed Half a Sixpence there recently and it’s a fabulous show. Much less fabulous is the Circle where I was seated by the PR people because it provides, they argue, a better view. What they gloss over is that it is so cramped – and I am neither overweight nor tall – that it makes economy class seem cavernous by comparison. And Wyndhams – I sat in the circle there for Shakespeare Schools Festival’s otherwise enjoyable Trial of Hamlet at the beginning of December – is nearly as bad. Yes, I know these are old, historic theatres and people used to be smaller but the discomfort level almost – not quite but almost – puts me off the experience to such an extent that I’d rather stay at home. I also know that these theatres are charging extortionate prices for these seats and that profit levels are high. It would be perfectly possible to reduce those profits marginally by taking some of the rows of seats and rejigging the space to create more leg room. That’s what they did at Royal Festival Hall when they refurbished and why ever not? Should there be a legal minimum space requirement for each punter?
Then there is the vexed issue of lavatories, especially for women which RFH got seriously wrong at its refurb and with which the Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford do much better. Women need more facilities than men – as everyone, surely, knows. When I arrived to interview Michael Volpe, director of Opera Holland Park recently, he was studying the plans for his venue’s new toilets so I pounced. It looks better than many venues and, yes, there will be far more cubicles for women than stalls for men so perhaps the queues will be slightly shorter. Every venue should be doing everything it possibly can to improved lavatory facilities and making it a priority. Fortune, Ambassadors and Duke of York’s, among many others, please note.
The other thing I loathe about being cramped in a confined space in a tightly packed row of theatre seats is having other people’s booze dripped on me and being assailed by the stench of their crisps and popcorn – not to mention the distracting rustling created by theatre-as-picnic-parlour. I can’t help the fact that it makes profits for theatres who sell all this junk at rip-off prices. People are there to experience a show and eating and drinking should not be part of that. It is rare for an piece of theatre to last more than 90 mins without a break and no one is going to starve or die of thirst in that time. Caterpillars have to consume continuously. Human beings don’t. As Imelda Staunton commented recently, it’s all about concentration levels. We should be encouraging people to focus on the show and nothing else.
For me, physical comfort or lack of it, definitely affects the quality of my theatre experience. And I’m sure I’m not alone. I hope producers, venue managers and the like are listening because issues like these could be making more difference to their audience numbers than they realise.