David Lister: Theatres should give women a break

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What was the biggest event in theatre this week? It was all set to be Nicholas Hytner's excellent initiative in beaming Helen Mirren's performance in Phèdre to cinemas around the world. But the National Theatre's artistic director has been upstaged by the arts minister, Barbara Follett.

She has brought centre stage the issue of women and theatre, not the plight of actresses over 40 or the lack of plays by female playwrights, but the apparently more pressing issue, certainly in the interval, of the lack of ladies' lavatories.

Speaking at the Theatres' Trust conference, Ms Follett said: "Theatres for me are wonderful, magical places, but there are elements of the theatre that make it less magical. Women take a longer time to go to the loo, and I am tired of spending most of the interval in the loo queue."

She also complained about seats in older theatres being too close together. She is not alone in suffering physical discomfort. The playwright Bonnie Greer said that she no longer attended live performances because the experience was too uncomfortable. Yes, I think I heard that right. A playwright who writes plays for people to see in the theatre won't go to the theatre herself because it's such a rotten experience.

A full bladder can spoil even the best of plays, and theatre owners and producers ignore such complaints at their peril, especially when you consider the interesting statistic given at the same conference by the theatre marketing guru Adam Kenwright. He said that women now make up 68 per cent of West End audiences, adding: "Women don't have such a great experience when they come to the theatre, because they have to stand in a line to use the facilities for too long. It is ridiculous."

It sure is. But what was the reaction? Theatre owners hit out at Ms Follett, saying that the Government should put more money into restoring and revamping theatres, spend less on the Olympics to do so, and argued that it was not theatre owners but producers who really made money in the West End, a slightly odd argument when the key producers also happen to own most of the West End's theatres. Richard Pulford of the Society of London theatres fumed: "It's all very well for ministers to will the end when they have shown themselves unwilling to will the means."

I think that Ms Follett should take him at his word and be a little more forceful. She should state in Parliament that there is a requisite number of facilities, loos in non-parliamentary language, that all cultural venues should have. And by a certain date they have got to have them. If we are going to have arts ministers, then it would be nice if they actually changed things that weren't working, rather than just rant at conferences.

And those owners/producers who would have to spend money improving these theatres? Yes, they have already made some excellent improvements; yes, further improvements will cost a lot of money. But let's not shed too many tears. Certainly all the West End owners and producers I know are estimable people, committed to theatre. They are also very wealthy people. And they can't go on offering a service which causes problems for 68 per cent of their audience. Ms Follett has to make it happen. She will have time to work out how in her next loo queue.

Those daytime Glasto blues

The BBC may have lost all sorts of sporting events over the past few years, but viewers will be pleased that it has retained coverage of the Glastonbury Festival. At least they will be pleased in the evenings. They must be a lot less pleased in the daytime. In fact, they must be pretty frustrated. Television coverage of the festival yesterday was diverse and plentiful across BBC2, 3 and 4 from 7pm onwards. Only problem is ... there were bands on all day too. It could have been worse. It was. On Thursday. Thursday, when Maxïmo Park (left) opened the festival, at Glastonbury didn't exist at all as far as BBC television was concerned.

Why does it not occur to the corporation to start its coverage earlier? I would have thought this would be an ideal way for BBC3 and BBC4 to increase their audiences. And if they do not have licences to broadcast in the daytime, then BBC2 could get in on the act. Missing hours of Glastonbury is as maddening as tennis fans missing half of Wimbledon.

Jacko refunds? Join the queue

What a pity that we shall not now see Michael Jackson's concerts. There's never a shortage of people to point out the late singer's flaws, but as an entertainer he was truly remarkable, and had a presence in concert that few other pop stars can emulate.

The sudden loss of 50 shows is an obvious headache for the management at the O2 in London. But I am puzzled by their words in the press yesterday about refunds for ticket holders. "The fans will be looked after, but right now it is not at the top of the list."

Why not? What is at the top of the list? It's not as if the box-office managers have to look after the funeral arrangements.

Meanwhile, I suspect that the death of a superstar will be followed by the inevitable reissues of his best albums. But on this occasion a new box set should be welcomed. After years of talk about his private life, a reminder of what made him a superstar in the first place is overdue.

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