MOST theatre-goers will have experienced it at some time - the stalls seat in front is still empty and the performance is about to start. You settle down in your seat, hoping that for once you will have a clear view of the stage. Then, two minutes before curtain up, the delayed coach party arrives and you get that sinking feeling as a man, 6ft 6in high, 4ft wide, and with hair like exploding candy-floss, walks up the aisle, looks at the number on his ticket and heads straight for that empty seat.

And you know that, no matter how much you scrimped and saved to pay for your ticket, how many months in advance you booked to ensure that you got what you thought was a good seat, or how many miles you travelled to get to the theatre, you are going to be able to see, at best, only three-quarters of your chosen show. The rest will be blocked out by that constantly moving head as its owner strives to see past the person in the seat in front of him, a procedure which is echoed down the auditorium.

What look like dozens of furry pendulums will start to sway from side to side, row upon row of them, right down to the handful

of folk at the front who will be

the only ones to see the complete performance.

The designers of Victorian theatres devoted much of their talent to the ornate decor, and the splendour of their vision, translated into gilt and glitter, is breathtaking. However, provision for

the actual spectators seems to have been thrown in almost as an afterthought.

Perhaps the Victorians were content to put up with poor sightlines, but why should we still suffer in the 1990s?

Many theatres throughout the country have been renovated over the years. For a form of entertainment that needs bums on seats to survive, the question of 'audience viewability' must have been considered: so why are those bums and their attendant bodies still being placed directly one behind the other on a rake which raises each row at best a few inches?

Modern musicals employ superb sets and spectacular effects, into which designers and directors have poured original ideas and large sums of money. Their effort and creativity is wasted if the audience cannot see properly.

In London especially, the prices charged for the shows which are weathering the recession are high enough for us to be entitled to see the whole performance with the minimum of hindrance from other members of the audience, by steeper raking of the seating, well staggered rows, or some other rearrangement.

There are some exceptions. The auditorium for Cats, for instance, is designed for good viewing, but on recent visits to The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon I was doomed to miss large chunks of the action, and had to make do with listening when the stage was masked by the hairy cranium in front.

The problem is made worse by the tendency of directors to have their actors spend at least some of the time kneeling or lying flat on the stage. At times I felt I might as well have saved my money and stayed at home with the CD of the show.

If Cats can do it, and so can provincial theatres such as the Crucible in Sheffield and the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough (where you can clearly see every minute of an Ayckbourn premiere for a quarter of the price of a London show), it is about time those theatre owners who are crying out for our custom started to put their houses in order - and in an order that allows their customers to see everything they have paid for.

A little more consideration for audiences could be one way of helping to ensure that future productions do not end up in the wings, bankrupt, unsupported and unseen.