As reported in this week’s paper, ATG is following Delfont-Mackintosh’s West End lead in planning to levy a ‘restoration fee’ on top of the ticket price as a contribution towards the upkeep and restoration of some of its ailing theatres, with a £1 surcharge to be levied on tickets at Richmond, the New Wimbledon and Brighton’s Theatre Royal.
Of course, the public are already widely being charged extra for the “convenience” of booking their tickets by phone or online – and this now means that they’re also being charged an additional fee towards the fabric of the building itself. (Imagine if Sainsbury’s or Tesco’s tried to slap an extra fee at the check-out for the convenience of providing till staff, or for the privilege of occupying the premises, and you’ll see how unfair it feels). But all of these fees are a neat way for the theatre owners to raise additional revenue (on top of the rent and contra they charge, not to mention bar, catering and programme sales income) that producers – the people who actually generate the product that goes into those theatres – don’t see.
The lead in this has naturally come from New York, where this additional fee has become standard practice. But though Broadway houses are often horribly cramped, with the seats getting narrower as the average size of the theatregoers themselves gets wider, you can at least see where the money has been spent: the toilets are clean if sparse, the basement lounges comfortably appointed with sofas, the seats properly upholstered, and the carpets and front-of-house areas in good nick.
That’s the sort of experience, too, that Delfont-Mackintosh have also delivered with their West End refurbishments already, so the restoration fee there (currently 75p per ticket) feels like a bit of a retrospective attempt to raise revenue for money that has already been spent. But at least you can see it has. The worry is trying to charge people money for something that they cannot yet see the benefit of: I’ve already blogged this week about Sarah Crompton’s response to the ladies’ loos at Brighton’s Theatre Royal, and it adds insult to injury to be paying an additional fee when they’re in such a state. And last night, attending New Wimbledon’s panto, I was struck by how cold and dank the gents loos are there, too. It’s not that they’re dirty; but they’re brutally functional rather than comfortable.
And as I squirmed on my front dress circle seat – which could have been as much a function of the show, of course, as the seat itself – I found myself thinking of other uncomfortable seats I’m glad I at least don’t have to pay to sit in. But the public does.
The Stage is currently polling its readers on the best and worst theatre seats in the country – you can contribute by clicking through from the story. However, in the spirit of the Nick Hornby-inspired lists I also began compiling the other day, here’s my own, not necessarily exhaustive, list of my nominations for London’s best and worst seats.
Arts Theatre – I know of no more decrepit seating in London than that in this small West End venue. The springs, which have entirely sprung, provide a constant percussion to the play as audiences move around.
King’s Head – I don’t want to beat up a theatre when its down, especially one held in such wide affection, but the seating arrangements here have always been notorious. Though somewhat improved now with the cushioned, but back-less, benches at the centre tables, the side tables and wooden chairs still offer the most uncomfortable fringe seating around.
Hampstead Theatre – I can’t believe that a brand-new theatre should have installed such uncomfortable seating – and with such poor legroom.
Trafalgar Studios 1 – the main studio at the former Whitehall is nearly ruined by the most weirdly cramped seating in London, with the cushioned seats rammed up against each other without arm rests, so you forced to become very friendly with your neighbour.
The Venue – with tiny plastic tip-up seats straight out of an Edinburgh fringe venue installation, this Leicester Square theatre is a pain in the butt. But the two front rows are better, with traditional theatre seating there.
The Royal Court downstairs – the ‘business class’ of London theatre seating, these firm, comfortable leather seats are supportive and spacious, but cosy, too – you can get closer and more intimate with your neighbour if you choose with retractable arm rests! There’s even a thoughtful pouch in the seat in front of you to place your programme in!
Barbican Theatre – the soft enveloping warmth of the individual seats carved out of cushioned benches in the main house is still the best feature of London’s least attractive arts centre.
National Theatre (Olivier and Lyttelton) – seats that have stood the test of time; just enough width and support to the back (but beware the front stalls of both theatres, where there are no arm rests – though you get them cheaper, too). In the Cottesloe, there’s tip-up cushioned seating which, though without arm rests, is comfortable enough; but when extra seats are brought in for different configurations, they’re far too close to each other for comfort.
Soho Theatre – unreserved cushioned benches mean it’s a bit of a scramble to get in when the doors open – and a bit of a squeeze to put the required number onto each row if its full – but they’re comfortable once you’re there.
Jermyn Street Theatre – for a tiny fringe studio, there aren’t better seats anywhere – the only pity is that the programming isn’t as good as the comfort factor!