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Shenton's View

The theatre of discomfort…. and cursed theatres….

Theatre can be such a pain in the butt. In every sense. But designing the perfect theatre seat shouldn’t be an impossibility: those seats in the National’s Olivier and Lyttelton have definitely stood the test of both time and bottom use – 30 years and counting – and so have the Barbican Theatre’s cushy seats that even – miracle of miracles – have sufficient legroom to allow people to pass you without having to get up. The Royal Court’s refurb also created the perfect “business class” theatre seat: firm, supportive and spacious, but cosy too – you can get closer and more intimate with your companion if you choose with retractable arm rests – and even with a thoughtful pouch in the seat in front of you to place your programme. Someone thought of everything here!

So why have other more recent theatre installations failed the butt test? The new Hampstead Theatre’s seats look good; but they provide scant legroom, and get uncomfortable fast. Even worse, both the (otherwise stunningly refurbished) London Coliseum and now the Novello have excruciatingly uncomfortable brand-new seats, and it turns out, the same people are interestingly responsible for both.

In order to maximise legroom, they’ve done away with the curved seats of old and designed seats that are completely straight-backed. Which is fine if you’re from the school of Jean Brodie and sit bolt upright, but slouch at your peril: the seat may have no curves, but your spine soon will. Worse, at the Novello it seems that the seats have a slight forward, downwards pitch, so as you slouch, you start to slide off them. But at least there’s not far to go – last night, watching the transfer of the RSC’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream there, I became quietly obsessed with working out why I was in such discomfort, and measured that the distance from the floor to the bottom of the seat cushion was just twenty centimetres, so you’re very close to the floor as you sit there.

When I mentioned all of this to Delfont-Mackintosh Theatres operations director Billy Differ, however, he was genuinely surprised: no one had yet mentioned any of this to him. I’m sure we’re all so stunned and awed by the tremendous refurbishment that has been visually achieved here to dare notice that we’re not comfortable. Of course, my colleague Nicholas de Jongh has already staged a very public attack – at last week’s Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards – on the absence of central aisles in the stalls. But this is far more serious, since we’re probably stuck with these seats for some decades to come. (Full marks, however, to the most welcoming front-of-house staff of any theatre in the West End: they actually smile as you arrive, and wish you goodnight as you leave. And full marks, too, for bar prices that are not rip-offs, either).

From cursed seats to cursed theatres: the New York Post sent in a feng shui consultant and a psychic to find out why a particular Broadway house, the Cort on W48th Street, has had such a run of bad luck lately. Of course, being on the ‘wrong’ side of the block – east of Broadway, between 7th and 6th, not the usual ones west of Broadway, between 7th and 8th – means that its among the last theatres to be booked, along with the others on the east side, like the Lyceum and Belasco, there; so inevitably it attracts the tenants who are most desperate for a home – any home – for their show, and those are often the weaker ones to begin with.

But the feng shui lady found more pressing problems: the entire block is “low energy”, she found, and the energy of the theatre itself “confused”; she wasn’t exactly happy by the ladies’ room, either (“all exposed plumbing with wooden doors like an outhouse, no mirror, and a sink across from a cracked window”). And the psychic is going to make it difficult for them to find bar staff for the first floor bar: he reported the presence of a woman – “perhaps an actress, with medium-brown to light-colored hair … long deceased, who may have suffered something unpleasant —most likely a sexual assault” – in the alcove near the bar. “I feel this woman didn’t report it when it happened, and there was a great deal of shame. I don’t think she’s moved in, but I felt her spirit would return to that site, near the bar.”

All of which leads him to conclude that all the conflicted energy around the place makes it difficult for a show that’s on there to work, and even if it does, it will be hard work: “If this show lasts, it will drain the actors,” he says of the theatre’s current tenant (a revival of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park): “It will be an uphill battle.”

Perhaps its time to send in the feng shui consultant and psychic into the Shaftesbury, too……


Two cheers for Mark's article on theatre seating. It would have been three but people with disabilities have been saying all these things for years - and being ignored - despite the arrival of the Disability Discrimination Act and the social model of disability ie it's up to society to change to allow access for all.

Good comments re seating...please let more managements know of the pain and discomfort that poor seating can cause. The Trafalgar Studio(s) is/are so severely raked and tightly packed that vertigo is combined with muscular spasms when movement is impossible for up to 90 minutes. 'Entertainment' become irrelevant during such physical confinement.

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Good comments re seating...please let mo...
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Two cheers for Mark's article on theatre...

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