Sir Christopher Wren's 'jewel of Oxford' is rock bottom of the theatre comfort league

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The Independent Online

A poll of art lovers has named the 17th-century Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford the most uncomfortable arts venue in Britain.

Designed by Sir Christopher Wren it was once described as "one of the architectural jewels of Oxford" by the European Commission.

But for the long-suffering concert-goer, it has some of the hardest seats around, according to listeners of Radio 4's Front Row, which broadcast its findings last night. "Hardy souls perching on benches in the upper tiers deserve a medal for endurance," according to one. "My bottom and back cannot take the pain and strain any more," said another.

Part of the problem for the Sheldonian was that it was never designed for concerts.

The building was constructed between 1664 and 1668 to provide a secular venue for public ceremonies, such as university graduations. Only later did it become one of Oxford's principal classical music venues.

Jeffrey Hackney, chairman of the curators of the Sheldonian, said they knew it was uncomfortable in two of the highest rows. Those seats could not be upholstered for health and safety reasons.

But over the past 10 years, every seat that could be padded had been and every seat without a back that could be provided with one safely had received it. The Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre in the city was even consulted for advice.

Mr Hackney said it was still a fantastic venue for music, whatever its faults. "It's a perfect place to go for baroque music. We had the Monteverdi Vespers here last Saturday and the acoustic was absolutely perfect," he said.

The Sheldonian was not alone in being criticised. West End theatres came in for flak as did the Royal Opera House, the English National Opera (ENO) and the Royal Albert Hall. A spokesman for the ENO said the company was well aware of the problems and they would be rectified by the current £41m refurbishment.

"The auditorium hadn't had any substantial work done on it for 100 years," he said. "But when our relaunch happens in February, people will be amazed. We will have new seating and a cooling and ventilation system and upgraded bars. There will be 40 per cent more public space."

Listeners also responded by nominating the most comfortable venues, with the Barbican Centre in London the clear favourite.

A Barbican spokeswoman pointed out that its cinema seating was the work of the legendary designer and chair expert, Robin Day, and the centre was built more recently than many of its rivals.

"The Barbican is 21 years old. It was designed at a time when people were more used to thinking about people sitting comfortably," she said.

The Birmingham Repertory Theatre, the Electric Cinema in Notting Hill, west London, and the Hebden Bridge Picture House in Yorkshire were also praised. Some venues won both praise and brickbats. The Pitlochry Festival Theatre in Perthshire was one.