I don’t know how to go to the theatre

Going to the theatre isn’t something I’ve ever done in any major way. I think the last time I went to the theatre was to see Blues Brothers: The Musical six or seven years ago and I ended up walking out during the interval as my spider-sense had picked up on the audience participation that was due in the second half.

In London, every underground station is peppered liberally with posters advertising various plays. Recently I’ve been tempted by a wide range: Anna Friel in an adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan in Waiting for Godot, John Simms and Kerry Fox in Speaking in Tongues, an all-star cast including Rebecca Hall and Ethan Hawke in both The Cherry Orchard and The Winter’s Tale and Kevin Spacey in Inherit The Wind.

Problem is, I don’t understand how anybody even manages to book a seat, let alone attend the play. Cinema is easy: you turn up, you buy a ticket, you sit where you like; or, you book online, turn up, wave your ticket under somebody’s nose and take your seat, along with the five other people who booked online and are now all sitting together in a largely-empty auditorium. Tickets usually cost somewhere between £7 and £12 depending on where you’re going.

But the theatre? Christ, it’s a different, expensive world. Obviously I’m not helping matters by only trying to attend the big-name plays with headline stars, but still, in some of the cases above I was being asked to pay £50 for a seat. £50! I could buy nearly the entire boxed set of Babylon 5 DVDs for that. For £50, I’d not just expect to see and enjoy Anna Friel’s theatrical interpretation of Holly Golightly, I’d expect her to buy me dinner as well.

I say £50 for a seat, but that’s not completely true; you can get cheaper seats, sometimes for as little as £15, if you’re prepared to sit behind a column, or so far back you can’t see anybody. The online seating plans with their arcane terms befuddle me: do I want stalls, dress circles, royal circles, galleries? ‘Stalls’ sounds rubbish — like you have to perch on a bit of wood that somebody’s been selling fish from — yet they’re apparently the best seats. ‘Gallery’ sounds like somewhere you’d go to see something artistic but if you sit in the gallery you’re in the worst and most uncomfortable spot. Why does the royal circle get a worse view than the dress circle? Aren’t royals more important than dresses, in the grand scheme of things? I suppose that certain royals might have a hard time without dresses, while most dresses, I imagine, cope perfectly well without royals, so maybe that’s the logic behind it. But wouldn’t royals get their own private boxes anyway, where they could go with or without dresses as they saw fit?

In a moment of dangerous tourism I thought about seeing some Shakespeare at The Globe, but that had all the same problems. In their defence, they also offer a limited selection of £5 tickets but to qualify for those you have be willing to stand up for the entire performance, and I didn’t spend so many years working with computers in order to allow me to stand up for more than 10 minutes at a time without wilting.

London’s Famous Kevin Spacey’s The Old Vic has an entertaining seating plan as each seat appears to be as bad as the next one, just in different ways. Hovering over each seat in the plan gives you a little text description of how bad the view is and how uncomfortable you’ll be. Here are some examples:

Pillar in line of view
Pillar in middle of view
Pillar to left of view, tight leg room
Partially looking through rail
Safety rail will affect view in this seat
Rail clips front of stage if patron less than 5ft 4
Poor leg room & lose left hand side, also safety rail in view
Pillar affects view, will need to lean

In the end I didn’t bother buying a ticket at all, but I did get some enjoyment out of the seating plan descriptions. The idea of people paying so much money to sit in a series of seats described as “Poor leg room & side view, leaning helps” actually fills me with more joy than any play is likely to.