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Are you sitting comfortably?

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Will Gompertz | 15:43 UK time, Tuesday, 9 March 2010

If you visit the theatre much, you'll know that to appreciate the work of cast, crew, director and writer, your seat matters. Sometimes it can matter a lot - if, say, you spend an evening doubled-up in a roof peering at indiscernible people making noises, it's likely you'll miss some of the nuances of the performance.

Last night, I saw a final preview of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Love Never Dies at London's Adelphi Theatre. Any comment on the production itself is embargoed, but I can mention what we could describe as "pay and conditions".

My ticket was free, but the Austrian woman to my left had paid £65 to sit in the "gods". The experience is not celestial, with the stage so far away, you have the sense that you are watching other people watching a show. My neighbour tried to use her "opera glasses" - a pair of small red pay-per-view binoculars of limited telescopic power - but didn't have the necessary contortionist's skills to whip her right leg behind her head to create the room needed to pull them out.

The loudspeaker carrying the voices to us was tinny like an old Fidelity record player. The woman in front of me had a nice hairdo, which was a plus, as it took up most of my line of vision. And where her hair wasn't, the ceiling was. I tried craning to my left to peer between heads, but the Austrian lady indicated I was moving our relationship on too quickly.

Later, we compared notes. Both of us lost sensation in the right leg first, and that meant we both stopped feeling the pain of the opera glasses embedding themselves into the right knee. We talked about the show and discussed the prices. She thought they were disgraceful.

I pointed out that tickets are advertised for our part of the theatre - the Upper Circle - from £25 to £47.50. Then a large man from the back row interjected. I can't remember whether ballerinas sweat or perspire, but he was doing both. "Bloody marvellous," he beamed. "The wife's had a lovely time and I've done all my e-mails."

Later, I checked some of the internet chatter about the production; sightlines and audience experience were topics of discussion. One post from Finland reads (with details of the show itself redacted):

half of the seats without a complete view of the stage is something i experienced for the first time... anckles of achrobats and no view of the balloon... are bad planning and need to be changed

Nobody could deny the huge risks impresarios take in creating new shows or should begrudge them their success when they have a hit. But the audience doesn't expect to have to shoulder a burden of risk too. Ideally, when they buy such a ticket, the quality of their experience should always be a hit.


  • Comment number 1.

    If you must consider a 'musical' a theatrical experience what do you expect!!!

    There are a reasonable number of real plays on in London, but unfortunately musicals seem to dominate! (You gather I don't like music, dancing or singing, but language and words - I would also criticise opera and other forms of so called 'art' that consists of prancing around on stage and periods of prologued repetitious shouting, often if foreign languages, with no apparent rhyme or reason!)

    Ideas and language with a plot that requires following - that is theatre to me - what you describe is torture! Being close enough to the actors to be splattered with 'kensington gore' from an 'old English cudgel' - that is closer to theatrical entertainment. There are some Shaw revivals about too. I used to enjoy, if that is the right word Beckett and even Wilde - when will there be a revival of any of Pinero's plays - or a restoration comedy - all good fun. Instead you conspire to present theatre as musicals! So sad.

  • Comment number 2.

    I'm afraid I must admit to the same bias as John_from_Hendon. I dislike all forms of pageants, including musicals. I also despise those silly tremolo voices people use when they want us to think they are feeling something besides panic a their own cluelessness (poor Shakespeare! he deserves so much better). I hate fads, but love genuinely innovative uses of language and clever plots that actually have something important to reveal to us. In any form of entertainment, I hate being told what to think or feel. Nonetheless, I am capable of looking at things I dislike and discerning whether they are well done -- provided that I can actually see and hear them. If you can't see or hear the production, why pay for the seat? I've encountered this problem in regional theatres in the States. Nearly a quarter of the seats are often tucked partway behind columns or half walls where part of the sight line is blocked or the acoustics are distorted. These are often "less expensive" seats, but heavens! Do you realise that a great portion of the population work as clerks, receptionists, secretaries, jobs where it takes two days or more to earn enough to attend this performance? That's eight hours of pain and suffering (if you doubt it, you haven't held one of these jobs for a very long time) in exchange for several more hours of frustration...

    Maybe the theatre is intended only for people in supervisory or executive roles?

  • Comment number 3.

    Surely the NDA doesn't compel you to censor a review written by someone else that has already been put into the public domain.

  • Comment number 4.

    Interesting to read this. We're in Wellington NZ, and there has recently been a 3 hour production at the TSB Arena, which although brilliant, was marred by the kind of seating which felt decidedly sub-economy class.

    Alas at almost any cinema, comfort is key, with ever more better legroom, and more plush seats. And it's leaving the theatre was behind, where sometimes sitting next so someone can feel almost like you're in a Rugby scrum of awkwardness ...

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    Trouble is, most West End theatre seats were designed for petite Victorians, not the broader beamed 21st century. And at least the discomfort keeps you awake during the average dull, pointless, turgid theatre show.

  • Comment number 7.

    Well, you've hit the nail on the head. Coin-operated opera glasses and old record players. The theatre is an anachronism, all right for the days leading up to cinema, but now? I think I'd rather take up morris dancing, to be honest.

    But I've only ever seen two theatre performances, both times it was like trying to view an archived 50s TV drama on an iPod screen. The intervals were worse: no Kia-Ora, no ice-cream tub, just a mad ruck for a glass of tepid white which had to be consumed entirely in the scrummage they called a bar rather than savoured in the comfort of my excessively paid-for seat.

  • Comment number 8.

    This sounds familiar. London theatres in which I have struggled for comfort in the last 5 years due to impossibly sub-standard seating include

    The Comedy Theatre, Panton Street
    Duke of Yorks Theatre, St Martin's Lane
    Albery Theatre, St Martin's Lane
    Playhouse Theatre, Northumberland Avenue

    (I hasten to add that I'm an average size & shape!) There really is no excuse.

  • Comment number 9.

    I have to say that for the past few years since my daughter discovered musicals I have attended several in theaters accross the country. There is a vast difference between the new and the old.
    Take for example the Millennium Centre in Cardiff, there really is not a bad view in the whole auditorium, there is sufficient leg room and the seats comfortable (and I am clinically obsese - Apparently - so my BMI says). However in each of theatres i have been to in london, they have all suffered from cramped and uncomfortable seating, even some that have been refurbished or advertised as revamped have not addressed this issue.
    As has been said cinemas look at the overall experience whereas the theatres rely on the stage and performers.
    If theatre is in decline i can understand why, for me i think the daughetr and wife can ahve the experience I will sit in a nearby pub and wait for the DVD.

  • Comment number 10.

    I go to the theatre a lot, both to musicals and plays. I think it a great shame that so often an experience is marred by the comfort of the theatre. As one blogger points out, with the arrival of better and better comfort levels in modern purpose build cinemas the seating in West End (and older regional) theatres has been left behind.

    Yes, our theatres were designed with a Victorian frame in mind. Most of our theatres are listed buildings and rightly this means a strict control on alterations. However there are actions that theatre owners could take. Is there any need to be sat with your knees around your ears? Remove two rows in the stalls and give everyone 3" extra space. In the dress circle of the Adelphi I was recently sat very low to the floor. Raise the seat level if you can't remove a row.

    Of course, removing seats means the ticket prices will rise. Already 940 seats of the 1500 at the Adelphi are priced at £67.50. How much higher can the price rise.... I hate to imagine.

    With most theatres now imposing a restoration levy, improved seating might be around the corner. Perhaps we'll also see improved facilities front of house and the fabric of these aging beauties restored. But, then, some theatres are choosing to spend the restoration levy on improving bar machinery. Surely money for that should come from the exceptionally high drinks prices we pay during an evening at the theatre.

    I think that a live performance, shared with hundreds of others in the same space is an important and valuable experience.If conditions and treatment of theatre patrons doesn't rise considerably, I'm sure fewer and fewer people will be tempted towards the live experience and will aim straight for that plush reclining seat waiting with a conveniently placed cup holder on the edge of town. What a shame!

  • Comment number 11.

    I agree with FrameScourer on the Duke of York's. I had the equal blessing and curse of being given a free ticket for a show that a group of students taught by a friend of mine were attending.

    The show was 'No Man's Land' and very good it was too. Well, I can only speak with authority on the second half as, for the first half, I was crammed into the front row of the Upper Circle where, if one sat back in one's chair, the stage was invisible and, if you leaned forward to see the stage, your knees were crushed against the railing.

    I have to admit that, at the interval, I waited for the last bell to ring, then strode with a sense of purpose into an empty box to enjoy the second half in comfort.

    The Comedy Theatre too has circle seats that can comfortably seat passing gnats, but no-one of any broader dimensions. A real pity, as some of the finest performances I've seen have been on that stage.

    Of course, the Old Vic and the front few rows at the National's Lyttleton auditorium could come in for criticism too, but I fear I've ranted enough for one afternoon!

  • Comment number 12.

    I read this item with interest, and hope that this reply conforms to the site's "house rules." Apologies if it reads a little awkwardly, but I wish to respect the rules about commercial gain and thus won't go into more detail than permitted.

    Simply, for 20 years my own experiences mirrored exactly the comments here about the shortcomings of London's charming but sadly now elderly theatres. In 2000 I actually created website that charts all these issues. To my surprise, that attracted thousands of readers - who all shared their own comments too - enough, in fact, to get a publisher to produce a book of them last year.

    All I can say is, there is often little that can be done, for both conservation and financial reasons, but what they can do, they will. Better seat design cures some legroom problems, better pricing and better informed sales staff help lessen the pain in wallet and expectation and, I can safely say from long experience... NO theatre owner likes getting complaints, and really does want a happy customer every time.


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