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Tatty venues do not guarantee good theatre

Let’s stop smilingly pretending that tatty, cramped dives with dreadful lavatories are more artistically expressive than venues which conform to modern standards. I’m with the little boy (can we gender-fluidly cast her as a girl?) in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes story. It needs saying. Loudly.

Six the Musical, now running indefinitely, is one of the best shows in town. It’s edgy, sassy and original as many critics have said. But it would be just as outstanding if it were staged in the relative comfort of, say, Park Theatre or The Bernie Grant Arts Centre where the cast would have better facilities too.  Dingy, cavernous, cramped discomfort does not automatically create good theatre – although the Arts Theatre, where Six the Musical  currently “lives” has improved a lot under the management of Lizzie Scott and Louis Hartshorn. The springs in the seats no longer protrude to dig into your back and bottom. But the seating is still tighter than a sardine tin and the access is terrible.

It is, of course, a fashionable theatre-going requirement to admire, and feel empowered by, the scruffy “excitement” of improvised and other unconventional venues. I don’t. Sorry, but there it is.

I saw a very fine student graduating show (Associated Studios with Sister Act) at Vaults Theatre near Waterloo earlier this year. The walk into the theatre (I’ve been there before but had evidently blanked out the awfulness) is like some sort of Soviet Russian dungeon, the bar so dark you can’t see to read the programme, “recycled” seats horrible and the lavatory provision woefully inadequate. It’s a good job that, on this occasion, the quality of the show was so high that it almost made up for it.

Good as much of the work was, I also loathed the old Union Theatre  in its original home where I always doubted that the primitive, subterranean loos were within the law. The new premises over the road are much more civilised and pleasant and I bet the back stage facilites are better to work in too.

Many pub theatres – much as I love their feistiness and the shows they often produce or receive – struggle to be adequately provisioned too. I’m confident that The King’s Head, for example – in many ways the best pub theatre in London – won’t expect its punters to teeter down a steep flight of stone steps for a wee when it moves into its eagerly anticipated new premises on Islington Square.

There will, I hope, also be a tiny bit more room between audience members. Old fashioned I may be but I really don’t care for this haunch-glued-to-haunch business with complete strangers and it must be a lot worse if you’re larger than I am. The Old Red Lion, also in Islington, springs to mind for its dreadful ladies’ loo too although the pub/bar area at the front is lovely.

Not that a theatre has to be opulent to work. Some of the old glitzy Victorian theatres are nearly as uncomfortable (The Fortune and Ambassadors Theatres, for instance) as tiny, improvised ones. Some new theatres – New Diorama and Above the Stag, say – are quite modest but decently comfortable. It can be done on a lowish budget without resorting to the full-scale comforts and size of, say, The Bridge Theatre.

Photograph: Niall Palmer via From The Box Office Blog



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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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