Hackney Empire is a jewel in the crown of an otherwise beleaguered London borough, more famous for being located on “Hackney Murder Mile” than typically for its arts provision. But since the theatre’s splendid £15m refurb, the Empire, at least, is even more of a treat to visit than ever before (though getting there is as much a trial as ever, not helped by an insane parking policy that, unique in London, seems to charge on meters until an unbelievable 11pm every night except Sundays). But the heart always lightens when entering this beautiful Frank Matcham interior; and an eclectic programme is doing its best to attract audiences from far and wide.
But visiting the theatre for yesterday’s matinee of the Oxford Stage Company’s marvellous touring production of Men Should Weep (in its only appearance in the London area, and therefore well worth the trip), I was confronted by another, far more dismal, spectacle: a complete failure of management to deal with the most basic – and most fundamental — transaction of running a theatre, namely running a competent box office.
When I arrived at 1.50pm for the 2.30pm performance, there was – I was surprised to see – already a long queue forming at the box office, staffed by a single beleaguered woman. There were, perhaps, a dozen people ahead of me; I finally got served at 2.10pm. I then went away to have a cup of tea at the local caff, and by the time I returned at 2.25pm, the queue was by now down the street. At 2.28pm (I know because I checked my watch) someone finally opened a second window, for the collection of pre-paid tickets. The show, needless to say, finally went up ten minutes late. And this wasn’t because of last minute arrivals, but because of people who had been there, waiting patiently, for ages.
It doesn’t help that Hackney seems to employ a go-slow computerised ticketing system for which each transaction seems to be a feat to complete; but to put one person in sole charge of the get-in seems insane.
A friend who worked in the airline industry told me once of what they call “points of entry” there at which an airline has an opportunity to interact with its customers to make a good and lasting impression: when the customer buys his ticket; when he checks in for the flight; and when he boards the plane. Get those right, and you’re on the way to customer satisfaction. Hackney failed at the first hurdle. Yet once you’re in this astonishing building, the building sells itself; it’s a pity that it can’t get the selling right to get you into it in the first place.