Being shown around Kilburn’s refurbished Kiln Theatre last year, I was delighted by the new street-facing cafe that makes the entrance so much more inviting, and I loved the way the auditorium has been remodelled. But I saved my particular joy for the ladies’ toilets. At the Tricycle (as the Kiln was known), trying to have a wee could take up the entire interval.
Recently at the Donmar, I invaded the men’s toilets (which were completely empty) while the queue for the ladies’ still snaked towards the stairs and the bell announcing the start of the performance had already been rung. Last week at the Playhouse, I just gave up and crossed my legs for the second half.
The Stage’s recent survey of West End toilet facilities told us what female theatregoers already knew: that in most cases the facilities are woefully inadequate. Nimax theatres refused to take part and any woman who has tried to spend a penny at the Duchess will know why.
The Old Vic has only one toilet for every 56.7 women in the audience, so you might think twice about visiting if you are pregnant or have any number of medical conditions. Maybe our forebears didn’t need the loo so much. Maybe the policy of allowing drinks into the auditorium has exacerbated the interval rush.
Even the National Theatre, which comes out well in the survey, doesn’t necessarily have its toilets in the right places. I have frequently acted as an unofficial toilet monitor (a role that may well be my real calling), directing women away from the obvious facilities to other parts of the building. Perhaps it’s a policy that should be more officially and widely adopted.
In the West End, old buildings often have limited space for new facilities. Spending a penny – a phrase that comes from the locks invented by 19th-century magician John Nevil Maskelyne, who transferred the mechanical skills from his magic act to sanitary use – doesn’t make money for theatre, but selling drinks and ice-creams does. Now that we have premium seats in the West End, will we have premium toilets too? Those prepared to spend a pound or two would be rewarded with speedier access.
Toilet queues aren’t all bad. In fact, I have had very good conversations in them. My favourite ever queue for the ladies’ was at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 1998 when everyone was singing songs from the show as they waited. I knew it would be a hit.
‘Though a theatre ticket can set you back more than £100, nobody cares about the quality of your experience’
The poor provision of good toilet facilities (particularly for women) reflects a more general lack of care for audiences and their experience at West End theatres. The play may be the thing, but at a time when a night out in the West End can easily set you back more than £100, it feels as if once you have bought your tickets nobody much cares about the quality of your experience. It’s not just the lack of facilities that are an issue: dirty cubicles and a lack of soap are frequent bugbears too.
Do these things matter if the show is brilliant? Probably not. A really great show is probably not going to be ruined by having to spend the entire interval queuing for a pee. But if you spent £60 or £70 on a meal out, you would expect to be able to use the toilet with minimal fuss. In a restaurant that cost £70 a head, you might expect to be treated like minor royalty. But lots of theatres treat the audience as if they are an inconvenience. Customer service often feels as if it is in the dark ages, and once they have got you in the building the only interest is in making you spend more money.
With a hit show such as Hamilton, where there is greater demand than supply, you can just about get away with it, but most West End theatres are selling tickets at a discount. However, that doesn’t mean that it should feel like a cut-price experience.
Those of us who go to the theatre regularly, and see it as part of our daily life, forget that for most theatregoers a night in the West End is a treat – something they will only do once or twice a year. That means it is not just the show that counts, but the quality of the entire experience.
If the show isn’t really memorable then you remember having had to queue for inadequate toilet facilities, and that the programme and the ice cream set you back almost a fiver each. So maybe next time you decide to spend your money on an experience, it’ll be one that makes you feel valued as a customer – and it won’t be at the theatre.