The mysterious disappearance of toto, and other tales of restricted view seating

When it comes to the West End, we have tended to see restricted view seats as a blessing in disguise.  With judicious use of seat opinions on theatremonkey and careful selection of seats, it is possible to sacrifice the view of a small portion of the stage in return for a substantial reduction in price, and get a bit nearer the action. 

However, we are starting to notice a changed attitude to restricted view seats, an attitude where audience members are expected to take the gamble, sometimes for no reduction at all.  Whilst some theatres will hold off from selling potentially restricted view tickets until the staging is determined, the Gielgud was quite happy to sell us restricted view tickets for ‘The Ladykillers’, with the less-than-helpful advice that the seats were restricted view, but how restricted they can’t say yet.  We won’t know until it’s too late whether our cheaper tickets were good value or not.

Elsewhere in the West End, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ caused quite a stir when it first opened, with seats in the front of the stalls causing problems due to the expansion of the stage to accommodate the much-vaunted double revolve.  Shorter people and children found themselves unable to see the yellow brick road (let alone follow it) and one review hilariously described seeing a “taut” lead but no toto.  In a new development, theatremonkey had to introduce a pink border to warn potential ticket buyers.  Whilst the ‘danger area’ covered rows A-I, only the first two rows are lowered in price.  Behind these, tickets are still top price at £65.  And although the rake of the stage is reported to have been increased in May 2011, this only partially resolves the problem.  A quick glance at the official booking agent for the show now reveals a whole array of different types of restricted view categories, but how many of those disappointed early customers, or should we say guinea pigs, received any compensation for their inconvenience?

But it is in the fringe theatres that the practice of bad sightlines seems to be creating real problems, and the tendency to have unreserved seating, and flexible seating plans (and the absence of a theatremonkey equivalent, of course) makes it much more difficult to know what you are going to get.  This was brought home to us most dramatically in the Young Vic’s production of ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ two years ago.  The seating is unreserved, but we couldn’t possibly have known that sitting on the sides of the balcony was going to result in us being unable to see large parts of the action.  The reason?  A swing door perfectly positioned in the middle of the stage.  We have some sympathy for theatres whose seating arrangements cannot easily be changed, but in a theatre which prides itself on the flexibility of its seating arrangements, this is unforgivable.  Interestingly, the mainstream reviews didn’t seem to notice it, but comments from ordinary theatre-goers and bloggers confirm that we were not alone in our plight.

For the forthcoming production of Hamlet, the Young Vic are playing it a lot safer.  Obviously, they are not going to miss the opportunity to get ticket revenue well in advance, but at least they assured ticket-buyers that tickets would be allocated first-come first served once plans had been finalised.  Inexplicably, we then received an email much later asking if we would like to downgrade our £29.50 ticket.  We opted not to, and would imagine that many others would consider £29.50 to see Michael Sheen in a small space an absolute bargain.  But what happens if all or most of the ticket-buyers opt to keep their top price tickets?  Will this influence the seating arrangement yet again?  Or will it just mean that late buyers will pay top price for a lower quality seat?  As the show is more or less sold out we will never know for sure.  Admirable as it may be to give audiences the opportunity to pay less for a ticket, one can’t help wondering what the motivation was behind this and why they would find themselves unable to organise a seating layout that gave everyone an excellent view.

When it came to our recent excursion to see ‘Road Show’ at the Menier Chocolate Factory, the issue of restricted view seating become a mystery wrapped in an enigma.  We are not unfamiliar with productions ‘in the round’ but this was the first time we could recall seeing a production with a ‘traverse’ seating arrangement (audience seated on either side of the stage).  According to wikipedia, the traverse stage is popular for fashion shows and is a good way of highlighting conflict.  Well in this case it was certainly the start of a conflict – with the Menier box office.  In the case of ‘Road Show’, you might hope to see at least 50% of what was going on, but thanks to some really skilful directing, there were times when actors performed to tiny sections of the audience, or even to blank walls.  If there was some dramatic effect that this was meant to achieve, we missed it.  Unless it was complete alienation from the action (well we know Sondheim is known for being emotionally detached but this is ridiculous).  Had that been the extent of the damage, we would have left it at that.  But our particular situation was exacerbated by a good old-fashioned pillar in front of our seats.  Our complaint met with the standard response ‘no-one has complained about that seat’ (although it was revealed that a number of complaints had been received for other seats), whilst informing us that if they designated our seat restricted view, they would have to do the same for nearly half the house.  We did push the issue, but the theatre were not going to budge, and although they offered free tickets for another night as a gesture of good will, we never got an explanation of how the theatre had decided that sitting behind a pillar does not constitute a restricted view. 

A West End theatre with fixed seating would not have got away with this because by law they have to indicate that a seat is restricted and this can easily be checked.  But for theatre where each show has a new seating configuration, and runs are short, the issue is unlikely to be taken very far.  As for the Menier, the evidence has literally been destroyed, and with it our confidence in the venue.

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5 Responses to The mysterious disappearance of toto, and other tales of restricted view seating

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