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There’s so much more to pleasurable theatregoing than a good production

Money well spent: the National’s refurbed and renamed Dorfman Theatre. Photo: Philip Vile
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The overriding reason for going to the theatre is, of course, to see what it is that is being presented on its stage. “The play’s the thing”, to borrow a phrase of Shakespeare’s.

But it’s only part of the overall experience that can turn an evening from something ordinary to extraordinary, and a lot of factors – some explicit and controllable, others more random and intangible – will come into play. This weekend, the UK Theatre Awards, honouring people and productions at regional venues that are members of trade association UK Theatre, will be presented in a ceremony at the Guildhall in the City of London. One of the categories, not voted for by judges but by the general public, is for Most Welcoming Theatre.

The shortlist was created out of nearly 50,000 public votes being cast, and with some weighting being given to the capacity of each theatre, the final contenders are Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Newcastle Theatre Royal, Newbury’s Watermill Theatre, Theatre Royal Plymouth and Cardiff’s Wales Millennium Centre.[pullquote]Theatres can’t take their audiences for granted[/pullquote]

It’s an important recognition of the fact that theatres can’t take their audiences for granted, but need to work hard to extend a sincere welcome to them. Visiting some theatres as often as I do, I’ve come to recognise the staff (and they me), and it does makes a difference. I’ve sometimes recognised temporary staff, too, like an actor who was in the original cast of The Book of Mormon working in the bar at the Duchess, or an ArtsEd student I’ve taught selling ice creams at the Garrick.

There are terrific managers all over the place who have gone the extra mile for me: at Chichester, where I was once determined to make the last train at 10.40pm but the performance wasn’t due to end until 10.30pm, the house manager started calling the house in at 7.37pm so that the Minerva show I was seeing went up bang on time at 7.45pm. She did the same again in the interval so that it didn’t overrun. In fact, it came down a few minutes earlier than advertised, at 10.24pm. (I made the train.)

But the friendliness shouldn’t just be based on familiarity or the needs of particular critics, but also extended far more widely to each and every patron. The other day at the Donmar Warehouse I loved how ushers were stationed at the exits and were bidding a friendly goodnight to everyone. It’s one thing for the artistic director Josie Rourke to be an amiable presence on first nights, which she most certainly is, but it’s even more significant that the staff are, too, on first nights and every other night, too.

[pullquote]It’s a pity the Apollo’s refit was a result of the partial ceiling collapse[/pullquote]

Theatre buildings are also about a lot more than their auditoriums. Some of them can’t do much about their tiny bars and foyers – could those of the Ambassadors be more cramped if they tried? But it’s high time this theatre was entirely re-seated, and the ridiculously uneven floor properly raked. Still, all credit to the friendly front-of-house staff who once again make you feel comfortable before the theatre’s own discomfort sets in. I look forward to Cameron Mackintosh carrying out one of his amazing overhauls to this theatre when he takes control of it.

Other theatres, of course, have been spruced up a bit better – the Apollo is absolutely gorgeous now, even if it’s a pity that the refurbishment was a result of the collapse of part of its ceiling at the end of last year.

It has been an ongoing campaign of mine to call for more accountability of the money earned out of the compulsory restoration fees that are charged at virtually every West End theatre nowadays, but 10 months on from the Apollo incident we are still not being told how the money is actually being spent. It constantly amazes me that anyone has the nerve to charge any kind of restoration fee at the Trafalgar Studios, where the armless seats are among the most uncomfortable in the West End.Unknown-1

It’s clear enough at the National where some of the £80 million being spent on the NT Future project has gone, with the former Cottesloe, now renamed the Dorfman and officially back in business with this week’s opening of Here Lies Love there, as well as the new Clore Learning Centre, a new riverside bar called the Understudy, and the new bookshop now open, too. The latter occupies the site of the former Lyttelton cloakroom, and has become a bit more gift-shop orientated now: as well as books, you can also buy cushions and honey.

And it’s been good to see new reconfigurations carried out over the summer at both the Royal Court and Hampstead Theatres of their public areas that make them both more user-friendly. At the Royal Court, the downstairs bar has been relocated to the middle of the room, while at Hampstead there’s much easier circulation upstairs and more encouragement to use the previously deserted downstairs space, with the staircase down moved to the right instead of the left.

Read more columns from Mark Shenton

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