[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/76761?ns=guardian&pageName=Can+quirky+West+End+theatres+survive%3F+%7C+Molly+Flatt%3AArticle%3A1305812&ch=Stage&c3=GU.co.uk&c4=Theatre%2CWest+End%2CStage%2CCulture+section&c6=Molly+Flatt&c7=09-Nov-16&c8=1305812&c9=Article&c10=Blogpost&c11=Stage&c13=&c25=Theatre+blog&c30=content&h2=GU%2FStage%2Fblog%2FTheatre+blog[/img]London's old-fashioned venues are cramped and uncomfortable, but for a dying breed of a hardy theatregoer, that's all part of the fun
We love to moan about the West End. There are the prices (of programmes and over-packaged cashews, not just tickets), the discomfort (at six foot, my knees have been known to blossom with what I call Mackintosh bruise), the short-run musical disasters (Love Never Dies: will it, won't it?), and of course the publicly urinating audience members (did anyone actually see them?). But the complaints are usually tinged with affection, as if we're discussing an exasperating but adored maiden aunt. Because the West End is ours, and we wouldn't want her any other way, right?
Steve Rich's newly published West End guide is a glorious anatomy of theatreland – or in many cases what theatreland will do to your anatomy - because its tips, warnings and recommendations come from us all. Based on his Theatre Monkey website, it is a great piece of cultural crowdsourcing, and it reflects the extraordinarily personal relationship we have with these old spaces. From urban legends about their ghosts to our love-or-hate relationships with particular seats, much of the pleasure of the book is in the humanity that permeates every detail.
Thus it has ever been for natives of the West End. A couple of weeks ago, faced with high-profile regional refurbishments, Steve Waters eulogised the "shabby gentility" of our old theatres. Many would agree that the idiosyncrasies and discomforts of the West End preserve the plebeian origins of our theatrical tradition. While tourists trundle through, paying top dollar for inferior seats, local word of mouth allows us to claim grassroots ownership of the place. The foibles of the West End are a sort of sport, in which we challenge ourselves to winkle out the comfortable from the cramped, the deals from the rip-offs, and the diamonds (such as Simon McBurney's Endgame) from the dross (Sister Act, anyone?).
Moreover, I strongly believe that too much comfort in the theatre is a bad thing. Squashing against strangers in too-small seats offers a sense of intimacy quite different from the disembodied atmosphere of our hangar-like cinemas. The only thing that could keep me alert through three hours of Brecht – however good the production – on a Monday evening is the fact that I could topple 20 feet if I nodded off. Theatre demands effort from the audience, and by God, the West End makes us work.
Whether things can continue as they are is a different matter. With audiences becoming accustomed to sofa-size "premier" seats and bulging buffet bars in other venues, can we really expect them to put up with tiny fold-out chairs, stingy pots of ice-cream and paperless loos in the spirit of "tradition"? These venues compound the image of theatre as a relic from the past, something to be dutifully endured. They may have atmospheric value, but their Victorian arches, awkward acoustics and dodgy sight-lines can interfere with the productions themselves.
For all its generosity, does Rich's guide just proves that we have to work against, rather than with, the West End in order to have a pleasurable experience? And is it only sentimental theatregoers such as myself who glean any satisfaction from that?
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Guardian: Can quirky West End theatres survive? | Molly Flatt
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