“I can’t feel my legs!”- leg room at the theatre

This article originally appeared on London Theatre Direct on 11 April 2016

I was recently worried that I had exhausted my theatre blogging subjects so asked friends and acquaintances “What stops you going to the theatre as often as I do?”  Worryingly leg room came up a lot. Is theatre space the real threat to accessibility rather than price?

I am short. I am 5ft 1 (155cm) with 29 inch legs. I can take risks and sit in most seats without my legs falling off. That isn’t  say I don’t notice fantastic spaces. The Duchess Theatre, where The Play That Goes Wrong is playing, has tons of room. I didn’t even have to get up when people wanted to walk past! I think a minor comfort enhanced what is a fun and enjoyable play but had my bottom been numb I might be less complimentary of the play.  A rival ticket seller recently revealed it was going to ask patrons their height and recommend a seat based on it. “What a fantastic idea” I thought until I noticed I was reading this on 1st April and then it became a cruel fantasy.

From taller friends I have heard horror stories, one friend had to stand at the back for the rest of the play after sitting in one chair became too much. I am getting to the age where I need a sturdy back but another friend pointed out that it isn’t just about leg room. Some seats are so packed together you feel like one shift and you could end up on your neighbour’s lap! Poor space can spoil an evening and understandably  make you question what you spent your money on.

There are some excellent websites such as Theatre Monkey, who can recommend value for money seats or Seat Plan, which has people review seats they have sat in. The only risk with theatre should be the production but it is unrealistic for most theatres to be able to make adjustments. People are taller that they were when many of London’s theatres were built in the 19th Century and a theatre’s main concern is bums on seats, however uncomfortable and money in the tills but what I can’t find forgivable is modern theatres who have provided uncomfortable seating all for the sake of “authenticity” (Naming no names but personally I don’t like being covered in candle wax. I am not judging if you do)

What can theatres do to improve the experience? Apart from knocking them down I think there needs to be more warnings. I appreciate a warning about sight lines, pillars, potential leaning but it would be good practice to say “Not suitable for people over 5ft 9” and let patrons take a risk on a seat but currently theatres do not acknowledge how physically uncomfortable going to the theatre can be

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Duchess Theatre, London

Les Blancs (preview), 23 March 2016

Les Blancs seems to have timed its arrival at the National Theatre (Olivier) perfectly. Its post-war colonial setting in an unnamed African country may not seem relevant today but tackling issues such as race, terrorism and the question of belonging as an immigrant it easily feels as though this was written in this decade and not 50 years ago.
Lorraine Hansberry’s title comes from her response to Jean Genet’s musical The Blacks (1961) and was her final work before dying aged 34 in 1965 and wasn’t staged until 1970. She considered it her most important work but its incomplete status (she was still writing until her death) means it is rarely performed.

Yael Farber (The Crucible, Mies Julie) creates an atmosphere of the Dark Continent, with traditional African singers and a smoky atmosphere, which reminded me of 2013’s A Season in the Congo, directed by Joe Wright, where nobody feels safe or at ease. Our protagonist could be a number of characters, Elliot Cowan’s Charlie Morris ,an American journalist disgusted with the colonialist racism who doesn’t confront America’s own issues of race, Danny Sapani’s Tshembe Matoseh, who returns after his father’s death after escaping to Europe and America, an experience which had both opened and closed his minds to white people and their attitudes or Sian Phillips’ Madame Neilson, a white immigrant who has tried to integrate and doesn’t understand her now low status amongst the natives.

The consistent theme is belonging; people trying to belong such as Gary Beadle’s portrayal of Abioseh Matoseh, Tshembe’s brother who has decided to become a priest rejecting African traditions, people failing to belong like Eric (Tunji Kasim), the mixed race brother of Abioseh and Tshembe who is raised with Christian name but is desperate to belong with the African’s fighting colonialism or Clive Francis’s Major Major George Rice, an old school colonialist who believes the white man has brought civilisation to the continent yet knows he is outnumbered and out of place relying on his gun and his race to get respect from the natives and his white peers but it is also looks at the fallings of both the white and the black characters. Characters that will kill rather than talk, characters who believe they are being paternal when they are suffocating, such as Anna Madeley’s Dr. Marta Gotterling. Despite the Olivier’s vast size it remains a claustrophobic piece and there is something haunting about Dr. Willy DeKoven’s (James Fleetwood) realisation that if given independence the African could live the quality of life a European would expect and had proven so in other countries.

At three hours with a 19:30 start it does drag a little, there are lots of scenes of actors running around the Olivier revolve and slow set changes, however where the piece picks up is the strong dialogue. I am not sure how much of the dialogue was Hansberry or whether it was National Theatre dramaturg Drew Lichtenberg but it is feels extremely modern and accessible with twists, that feel inspired by stories such as Hamlet and Cain and Abel, that whilst aren’t entirely unexpected they don’t feel like a gimmick to keep the piece moving.

Hello!

Welcome, I’ve started this blog as alternative to my blog posts on London Theatre Direct, https://www.londontheatredirect.com/News.aspx.

It will be a mix of reviews (usually reviews of previews), articles about pricing and other theatre concerns plus whatever takes my fancy. I am keen to do more interviews with those in theatre (actors, directors, producers etc) so if you are interested in being my first victim please contact me.