Reservations about theatres being unreserved

Carousel at the Arcola. The theatre has introduced reserved seating.
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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Just the other day I was writing here about the opening of public booking for the forthcoming Donmar Warehouse production of City of Angels. The show doesn't open till December, over five months away, but the entire run was sold out within minutes of the tickets being released (or at least those tickets not already sold to the Donmar's army of supporters, or the nearly 500 held back each week for the Barclays Front Row scheme and day seats).

But those who got in touch with me to tell me about this on Twitter were complaining even more about what seats were actually available to buy: as one put it, not a single stalls seat came up at all on any of 17 separate dates he tried to access, and every single ticket he was offered was in the second or third row of the circle. Of course, early bookers will invariably get the best allocations, and the Donmar's own priority bookers had apparently already nabbed those.

But the problem - or rather the virtues of early booking, if you twist it around other way - is spreading across London. Last weekend I went to see Carousel at the Arcola, where they've just introduced reserved seating. Already there's also reserved seating at the Tricycle and Young Vic, too, and when Paul Miller takes over the Orange Tree next month, that's the first big change he's introducing there, too.

I'm not complaining: I hate the unseemly scramble for seats the moment the doors open. Not, I hasten to add, that I often have to participate: one of the privileges of being a member of the press is that more often than not a theatre will reserve a prime seat for me. But that has the habit of marking me from the crowd, and I invariably suffer a sense of guilt when I walk into a full house where people have arrived early and queued to secure the best seats and go straight to mine without having done so.

The seeming democratisation of the fringe way of unreserved seating clearly has its exceptions, and not not just for me. Human beings have a way of looking out for their own, and a good friend of mine has vowed never to return to the Union Theatre after an unseemly row with fellow theatregoers who got in first had reserved great swathes of the best seats for their friends. (The Union has a door policy of issuing numbered tickets based on when people pick them up, and then admitting people in blocks of ten based on those numbers).

No system clearly is perfect and they're always open to abuse. Perhaps the theatre simply needs to police it better. But reserved seating gets around the problem entirely, so that it truly is first booked, first served. It would take the stress out of going to the fringe. It's one of the reasons I so dislike the Edinburgh Fringe: after a week of constant queuing, I find myself exhausted by the effort. It's not the only reason I've given up on it, but it's a major deterrent. Or perhaps I'm just showing my age?