Just to clarify before we get started, I’m not always a theatre loner. Going to see shows with friends is the ABSOLUTE best because you can pick their brains, have a giggle over a drink, and see stuff that they’ll enjoy. It’s a proper night out IMO.
But unless you’ve got exclusively thespy friends, if you really like going to the theatre, sometimes you’re just going to have to go it alone. There’s just never going to be someone free every time you want to go see something. And if you’re as spontaneous as I am in my theatre going habits, last minute availability of people (especially in London) has pretty slim odds. Plus loads of my friends are still studying (you know the LPC, mastering types) and the others are only in their first or second year of work so the cash flow there isn’t exactly ideal.
So there’s me. And sometimes I am a theatre loner.
Basically, then, what I want to get across is how DAUNTING some theatre spaces are when you’re on your own, compared to other ones. I wouldn’t say I was easily daunted. I don’t much care what people think of me (the whole living-for-Jesus thing kinda rules that out). But for some reason I find quite a few theatres really horrid to be in before going in and settling down at my seat.
And I’m a serial theatre-goer. If someone like me, for whom going to the theatre is a really normal regular activity, then HOW much more SCARY would it be for a newbie to cross that threshold? (We’re talking about “barriers to access” here, if you want to speak in “audience development” terms.)
So I’m going to name and shame. Please don’t take it personally, theatres. Sometimes your architecture means you JUST can’t help it. And I get that. But I just want people to be aware of it. And I’ll say where I think spaces are RIGHT, too.
Also I don’t really go to the West End much. So there won’t be many of those theatres coming up, sorry. This is a very selective selection.
Please tell me in the comments your thoughts on scary and not scary theatre spaces.
The RSC, National Theatre, The Globe
Similar vibes to all three. Loads of bits and bobs to explore around. Great big cafes and bar areas. Massive shops. Loads of places to sit and be inconspicuous. Plus the house opens really early at the National and the RSC particularly, so you can go read your programme in your seat and get comfy well ahead of time.
Young Vic, Southwark [pictured]
Dark enough with bar atmosphere to sit alone upstairs with a beer and a book and not feel overlooked. [Also favourite theatre for atmosphere to go with friends, big thumbs up.] Similar vibe: Southwark Playhouse.
Most Pub Theatres
Finborough, Hens and Chickens, London Theatre Workshop, Hope Theatre, Drayton Arms, King’s Head, Old Red Lion – all the ones around Upper Street, etc. basically if you feel comfortable having a drink by yourself in a pub then you’ll be fine. Could also add here Theatre Royal Stratford East.
Arts Centres: Southbank Centre and The Barbican
Well they’re just VAST, aren’t they? I’m very happy to sit on a nice bit of floor by a plug to charge my phone in a little quite space with a sandwich. Perfect. Don’t have to even buy something to not feel awkward here. The Dream.
Salisbury Playhouse and Salisbury Arts Centre
Everyone here is so local and friendly. Hard to feel out of place. Someone might even talk to you if you’re by yourself.
Birmingham REP, Birmingham
Lots of sprawling space and things to hide behind. Like staircases and such. And a big library if you want to go dally away time there. Lots of cool architectural stuff to Instagram.
Warwick Arts Centre
Don’t know if this is cheating because I went to uni here, but so much cafe space and stair space to sit and feel good about life.
Watermill Theatre, Newbury
So cute this place. To tell the truth I’ve never actually been here on my own. It’s not the sort of place you would. But if I did go here on my own, especially in summer, I think I would feel great. There’s lots of places to wander and there are ducks.
Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn
So much seating you don’t know what to do with yourself. Nooks and crannies aplenty.
Bush Theatre, Shepherd’s Bush
It’s got a library. I always feel at home in a library. But actually this ones kind of in-between good and bad. There’s not much seating, so if it’s a busy show then you might be the awkward lemon standing alone in a corner – or worst, in the centre of the crowd. But at least there’s things to browse.
Other good’uns: Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (fairy lights! space!), Bristol Old Vic (not too grand), Chichester Festival Theatre, Royal Court (places to lean), Oxford Playhouse, Nuffield Southampton (fantastic eating place).
THE BAD and THE UGLY
Menier Chocolate Factory, Southwark
Another in-between one. The bar/restaurant area is too fancy pants to sit by yourself and you would definitely have to buy things to be there. The other seating area round by the theatre is quite small. But there are columns with places to put your drinks so you can hide a bit. Undecided.
Almeida Theatre, Islington
Doesn’t have a cloak room. Really awkward space. No way near enough tables to sit at. Hate it. A lot. Want to crawl in a hole when there on my own.
I’m sorry Lyric. You tried REALLY hard in your refurb. And it is a lot better. But it’s still really not obvious that you have to go up the stairs and then up more stairs again. Your box office staff need to tell every single person who comes in to go up the stairs. Otherwise newbies will have no clue what is going on.
The entrance hall is so white it’s overwhelming. And the LITTLE POKEY box office, WHAT ON EARTH is that?! What were you thinking.
Bath Theatre Royal
Super fancy entrance hall with limited milling area. Squishy. The kind of place middle-aged and elderly couples, or groups of women, go for treat nights. Not a solo girls’ paradise.
English National Opera (er, the theatre has a name doesn’t it…)
The whole entrance space is really badly signed. And there are too many ushers standing so that they look like barriers but actually are just there to check tickets. I stood for ages downstairs without realising you were allowed to go up because all the ushers were blocking my way. And downstairs there is nowhere to hide, or mill around, or sit. Awks.
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
I’m actually a bit divided on this one. But the bar area just gets so rammed it’s just tricky to find somewhere to “be” whether you’re alone or not!
Trafalgar Studios and Jermyn Street Theatre
Where are you meant to go in these places? There’s just no where to sit or stand without looking like a lost lemon.
Old Vic, Southwark
It’s just a teeny bit intimidating being here on your own. It’s not so bad. It’s just hard to blend in. The press pen is especially awkward if you ever get invited for press night.
Hall for Cornwall
You probably haven’t been here. It has a really strange layout where you have to go through these huge wide corridors to get to the theatre entrance, but then people stand there too and get in the way. And in the entrance hall there’s no dwelling space.
Other bad’uns: The Print Room at the Coronet (no chill space), Richmond Theatre (gets rammed), teeny local theatres (too empty, sadly – so don’t be put off!), the Blue Elephant Theatre, Camberwell (small).
FINALLY: If you sit next to someone who is at the theatre alone they will probably want to talk to you. I mean, tease it out – you’ll be able to tell pretty quickly if they don’t. But I would love it if someone just said to me “Don’t you love the set!” or “Have you ever seen anything by this director before?” or “I loved this actress in…”.
That would make my night so much greater. Especially if you’re there with a friend or partner or whatever and we can have a little chat, then move on with our lives.
That’s what theatre is about, no? Little life encounters that maybe change you a bit.