Don't mention the lack of legroom in London playhouses

Try sitting in the stalls circle at the Royal Opera House. Or rather don't. It's agony
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The Independent Online

As with Basil Fawlty and the war, so it has always been with the performing arts and audience comfort. Don't mention the legroom! Yet, this great unmentionable appeared in the Theatres Trust report on the state of the capital's playhouses. The report complained, absolutely rightly and not before time, about the lack of legroom in many of our best-known theatres. Now there's a word that you'll rarely see in a theatre review, and never in a book about the arts. Peter Brook's masterwork about the stage is The Empty Space. Who will write The Lack of Space about life in the audience?

As it happens theatres are not the worst offenders when it comes to legroom. Try sitting in the stalls circle at the Royal Opera House. Or rather, if you're taller than 5 ft 6, don't try sitting there. It's agony. But the multi-million-pound lottery funded redevelopment of the House did nothing about the legroom problems in one of the pricier parts of the auditorium.

The Theatres Trust offers an explanation for the lack of legroom. Apparently, people are on average four inches taller now than a century ago, when some of the theatres were built. Explanation it might be; excuse it is not. I will tolerate Victorian legroom if I can have my interval drinks at Victorian prices.

But legroom is not the only unmentionable. There are other words which are considered much too infra dig to mention when discussing a night at the theatre, opera, concert hall or ballet. Another word that must not be uttered in the arts community is air-conditioning. But how many people, I wonder, were put off going to the theatre for a lifetime as they sweltered in the hot summer just gone. I attended the first night in the height of the summer of Vincent in Brixton, a wonderful play with a riveting performance by Clare Higgins. And I watched, depressed, as people either left during the first act or began to sway dangerously in their seats because of the lack of air-conditioning and lack of air. But why spend lottery money on air conditioning for the audience's comfort and greater enjoyment when one can spend it on bars and restaurants that bring in more profit?

I suspect that until now theatre and concert hall owners and managers have not concerned themselves with the great unmentionables as they knew they would never be complained about or uttered at all in polite society, that is, aesthetically correct society. Who would be so vulgar to mention legroom or air-conditioning when there were performances, orchestras, designers and directors to discuss? Well, perhaps last week's report by the Theatres Trust marks a turning point. It is now respectable, aesthetically correct even, to mention the unmentionable, to admit the obvious truth - namely that there is more to an evening's enjoyment than what happens on stage.

So, what other unmentionables should we now begin to talk about? Rock concerts, perhaps. How's about the small fact that small people cannot see when everyone in front of them stands up? A difficult one, I know, as standing up and dancing are integral parts of a rock concert. But it must be a little odd to go to a show and see virtually nothing. Perhaps it is a performing arts quid pro quo. If you're tall you get cramp in a theatre. If you're small you can't see at a rock concert. Of course, small people could choose seats in parts of the arena where they are on the side, and not standing in front of the stage; but for many rock concerts you are not even told where your tickets are for when you book them - another unmentionable.

Then there's the question of programmes, expensive in the West End, prohibitive at rock concerts, and little more than a mix of pictures and anodyne biographies at both. Neither theatres nor rock concerts, however, have programmes as abysmal as those at classical music concerts. The biographies of the soloists that one has come to see contain nothing whatsoever about their lives, just a list of recordings lovingly supplied by their agents.

Things might begin to change. We can look forward to an evening out with plenty of legroom, no scrum in the bar, nearby parking, free and informative programmes, unimpeded views in air-conditioned venues. Then it will be a pleasure to concentrate on the performance.

¿ Cheaper theatre tickets are no longer unmentionable, I'm pleased to say. The National Theatre is, for the first time, to extend its £10 Travelex scheme to a West End theatre for a week of preview performances of the transfer of its production of Jumpers to the Piccadilly Theatre. And my own Lister Experiment, which aims to attract new audiences to theatre by offering tickets for selected performances at low prices, is being marked by Paul Roberts, producer of the Queen musical We Will Rock You. He has decided to celebrate the first anniversary of the experiment by offering best seats at £11.50 for the performance on Tuesday 2 December. Those wishing to buy tickets at the special price should call the box office at the Dominion Theatre in London (0870 169 0116) and quote the Lister Experiment. I hear the legroom isn't bad either.

d.lister@independent.co.uk

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