Going to the theatre as regularly as I do, you soon learn to know where to expect discomfort as a matter of course, and how to mitigate it, if possible. You know, for instance, that all the seats on the hard benches of Shakespeare’s Globe are bum-numbing; but that if at least you get the back row of any of the levels, you will at least get a back rest. (My own favourite seats are therefore the ones in the fourth row of the middle gallery).
And if you go to the Trafalgar Studios, as I did last night for the opening of The Caretaker, your best bet is always Row E - it’s where the old dress circle used to end, and has a useful extra bit of legroom before the seating continues its steep rake down to the stage. Unfortunately I wasn’t in Row E last night, though - and when I collected my tickets, I discovered they were in Row J.
That’s only nine rows back, but as I previously noted here when I was seated in Row K, one row behind last February for the opening of Entertaining Mr Sloane, “This theatre is so vertiginously raked that you truly feel you are peering down at the stage from the wrong end of a telescope.”
So I immediately asked if I could change seats before it even began. That may be me being spoilt, but I speak here with authority and experience, and if I was buying tickets myself, I simply wouldn’t buy them there. The producer Danny Moar came to my rescue and proffered his seats instead, in the middle of Row G. That was, of course, a generous gesture on his part; but it did mean exchanging the aisle I previously had for more central seats.
That should, of course, have been a win-win; but not in the Trafalgar Studios, where the seats have mysteriously had their arms removed, so you’re wedged in tightly with your neighbours, literally cheek to cheek. I thought that losing weight, as I’ve lately been doing, would start making this easier, but last night came proof that it’s still a tight squeeze here (or alternatively I still have some way to go!).
But it definitely impacts on your enjoyment and engagement with the play. You concentrate instead of the minute shifts in movement that your neighbour is making, and trying to synchronise it with them so when they are sitting back you lean forward, and vice versa.
This is now top of my list of West End theatres I like visiting least. And on Sunday, I also found a new candidate for most uncomfortable fringe experience, too: in the basement below the Leicester Square Theatre (itself subject to a bizarre lack of raking, but at least the seats are comfortable), a tiny studio space has been carved out. And although it usefully has its own in-theatre bar area, the rudimentary chairs are again bunched together so tightly that there’s no room to move. And like its grander upstairs brother, there’s no raking, either. So views as well as comfort are seriously compromised. (As it happens, on Sunday afternoon there were only 12 of us in the audience, so we made it work, even if the actors struggled to make the play do so).
I’ve also been campaigning previously here for the comfort factor of the Menier Chocolate Factory to be upgraded; they’ve long proved that they can put on a good show, even great ones, but there’s been no major upgrade to the bench seating since I first visited it back in 2003.
At least some theatres are realising that it’s not just about what’s on the stage that matters, but where audiences watch them from, too. It’s been a pleasure to lately visit some of the theatres in the ATG chain - I’ve spotted theatres like the Duke of York’s, Comedy, Wimbledon and Richmond Theatres all recently having seating upgrades.