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Natasha Tripney: Decent theatre loos should not be an optional extra

The announcements are not helping. Five minutes to go, the tannoy says. Three minutes. One minute. It’s the interval of In the Heights at King’s Cross Theatre, London, and my friend and I have spent the past 15 minutes standing in a long, winding – and frustratingly slow-moving – line outside the ladies toilets. There is definitely more than one minute’s worth of queuing left to do before we even get to the door, never mind to a stall.

At this point it becomes necessary to do some brief physiological calculations (bladder capacity times liquid consumed divided by remaining running time of show). We decide to give up on the queue and cross our legs, but it’s frustrating and saps some of the fun out of what was a celebratory night out revisiting one of the most entertaining shows in town in its last week.

While snaking queues for the loos are par for the course in many West End theatres, listed as they are and built at a time when it appears that women didn’t urinate or menstruate, it feels galling to experience this in a purpose-built, albeit temporary, performance space. Surely with a little more forethought and better use of the space – the bar area through which we were queuing was huge – this could have been minimised.

Toilets aren’t trivial. They shouldn’t be an architectural afterthought. Inadequate facilities can make a real impact on enjoyment; I know people who avoid certain venues because of the scrabble for the lavs in the interval.

Improvements are being made. Unfortunate explosions aside [1], most Cameron Macintosh theatres are better equipped in this regard than other West End venues, Shakespeare’s Globe has not seen fit to extend its policy on historical authenticity to its privies (and in fact is one of the best equipped theatres) while the Spend a Penny campaign [2] was launched by the Theatres Trust last year specifically to address complaints about the under-provision and poor quality of female toilet facilities in theatres. Eight theatre – including Liverpool’s Royal Court and London’s Little Angel Theatre – were recently selected to receive £15,000 each to improve their toilet facilities for women, but also to improve provision of gender neutral and unisex toilets.

It’s not just a question of whether or not to wine before the show – let us call this the Robert Icke Predicament [3] – nor is it purely a question of gender. Toilets are an access issue, as Paralympian Anne Wafula Strike made clear recently when she called out CrossCountry trains on their failure to provide accessible facilities. It’s about recognising and addressing the needs of your audience. It’s about making your theatre welcoming to pregnant women, people with medical conditions, mobility issues, invisible disabilities, older people – or simply those people who haven’t conditioned their pelvic floors via the Ostermeier method.