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Mark Shenton: To pee or not to pee – it’s a relief to see some venues adding more loos

Les Miserables at the Queen's in London's West End. Photo: Shutterstock Les Miserables at the Queen's in London's West End. Photo: Shutterstock
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“The ladies are about to storm the men’s loos. They can’t manage to have a drink and a waz at half time,” complains Joanna Lumley, as she fronts a fundraising campaign for £100,000 to improve the toilet facilities at the Old Vic. This includes doubling the current provision of just 10 women’s cubicles at a 1,067-seater theatre – which, in a gender-balanced audience for a sold-out show, means one cubicle per 50 women. Of course, not everyone needs to use them on each visit; but it’s still palpably inadequate.

Delfont Mackintosh Theatres has also announced plans to more than double its toilet capacity at the Queen’s Theatre, home of 
Les Miserables, as part of its closure and refurbishment, with planning permission granted to install up to 33 more cubicles, in addition to the current 24. As reported by The Stage, the proposed designs will alleviate the current situation of visitors needing to queue for toilets “for up to 10 minutes into the second act” of Les Mis.

It’s not just women who are affected there, either. By robbing Peter to let Paulette pee, there are now massive queues at the tiny men’s loos on the stage right of the Queen’s auditorium (the former men’s room in the stalls bar has been turned into a women’s toilet). It’s one of numerous problematic theatres: try going to the men’s loos at the Phoenix, for instance. The stalls area has a tiny facility at the back of the auditorium that’s much smaller than the adjoining private Ambassador Lounge space, with three individual urinals positioned so close to one another there’s no chance of privacy, let alone movement, and just one cubicle.

While West End theatres have long collected restoration charges on top of ticket prices to maintain and improve the fabric of their buildings, changes have been slow to come in some quarters. Partly, of course, it’s a problem of space: these are old – and mostly listed – buildings that weren’t built with toilets in mind. But they were also built before an age in which theatres relentlessly sell drinks, and even (in the case of Ambassador Theatre Group) deliver them to patrons’ seats on demand. I wonder whether ATG should also sell disposable urinal packs, so you can pee at your seat, too.

But, as Delfont Mackintosh has shown, it is possible to come up with creative solutions. At the Queen’s, “the new toilets will be created by developing a light well in the theatre that does not currently have a function. Using the space, the theatre will be able to add toilets at every level, including the stalls and dress circle.”

It’s not just a question of comfort, but of anxiety and etiquette: there are few things more terrifying than rushing to the loo and being caught in the crush of other exiting patrons, then finding yourself in a long queue before you can find relief. I remember once feeling my bladder ready to explode, and calculating that from my position in the middle of a row in the Vaudeville stalls I’d never make it to the urinal-only loo if I waited till the interval – I had to disturb my row to go before the first act ended. And I ran straight into the show’s worried producer, who was concerned I was leaving early.

The problem is not confined just to theatres: as Rebecca Nicholson recently wrote in The Observer: “Gigs, pubs and even street celebrations such as Pride, where plastic urinals come out in force, require strategic thinking if you can’t pee standing up: either a strong working knowledge of public loos or careful planning, in a kind of ‘liquid + time – facilities = I’ll pass on that drink, thanks’ equation.”
It’s a strategy I employ myself nowadays. I go liquid-free for at least an hour before a show, and don’t drink during it at all. I’ll never forget a cast member texting me before I saw the interval-free Follies at the National: “One word to say…. Toilet!!!!!”

That was born of a creative decision to maintain the continuity of the show so that it played for two and a quarter hours without a break. (The National has ample toilet facilities).

But other shows and directors offer a more flexible approach: when Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach played at the Barbican without an interval and ran for more than five hours, we were informed that we could come and go at will. And when I saw Taylor Mac’s astonishing 24-Decade History of Popular Music at New York’s St Ann’s Warehouse in one 24-hour stretch, I took the opportunity to take a loo break every time he did. The amazing thing was that on every occasion he was already onstage singing again by the time I returned.

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