This post originally appeared on London Theatre Direct 19 March 2016
I am aware some will look at this headline with confusion, maybe even repulsion but I can explain. Unreserved seating isn’t just about spoiling your pre-theatre bar time but about a fair ticketing system that allows friends to book separately and the over organised (or those with the sharpest elbows) to triumph. I look at the many pros, the occasional con that is unreserved seating.
I recently booked for Bug at Found111, one of London theatres newest and, by all word of mouth accounts, oddest spaces. There are stairs, lots and lots of stairs and unreserved seating. This would be fine in most small theatres but with James Norton and with previous productions of the play containing nudity I am not expecting to be the only patron in the room but I am expecting more drama from the audience than I am from the play.
People cannot cope with unreserved seating. Picture the scene: a group of twenty rocks up with their drinks two minutes before the start time and SHOCK! HORROR! they can’t sit together, there’s grumbling, pleading looks with other audience members to move for them and it is a sad sight. I don’t want to patronise you about how unreserved seating works but the key thing to learn is it is dog eat dog. Get there an hour early, get there twenty hours early if an attractive, well known actor might get naked (I am quite myopic so obviously it is crucial I sit on the front row on such occasions) as soon as that queue starts moving you move with it.
It is sounds hideously stressful, doesn’t it? I know people who boycott theatres that don’t have reserved seating and Southwark Playhouse responded to complaints about the policy for Grey Gardens by making the upcoming musical, Toxic Avenger, allocated seating. I do understand the anxiety, as a mainly solo theatre attendee I have turned up with not much time to spare for sold out/nearly sold out productions and still got a good seat but when I recently saw P’yongyang at the Finborough Theatre I made my friend wolf down her food because “It was sold out and we have to get the best seats and SCREAM!” We were the second and third person to arrive in that small space. We did get front row to stretch our legs though so having an anxious seat fiend as a friend has its pluses, honestly!
The key issue is how well a venue is selling. For many productions in unreserved spaces they simply do not sell out but why are smaller venues becoming so popular and why is there a demand for allocated seating? I believe more people are taking a chance on off-West End venues, that tend to offer such seating policies, because the pricing is much cheaper than the West End and it is attracting some interesting “star” names and for many of us that live in London these venues are much closer to home. I still believe there is a place for unreserved seating, all the ticket prices are the same and the red flag waving Socialist in me likes that but it might be worth small theatres experimenting with allocated seating for shows that they suspect will be popular, if the King’s Head can allocate seating than anyone can!
Update: Southwark Playhouse’s large spaces, for both plays and musicals, are allocated seating.