London theatres: can a “restricted view” be a bargain?

“Restricted view” can mean anything from, “You’ll have to move your head slightly a few times during the show” to “Are you sure you really need to see the stage at all?” or even, ” Have you thought how comfortable cinemas can be?” It’s a phrase all too familiar to the regular theatregoer without a bottomless bank account.

To be clear – I’m luckier than many: I don’t pay for all my tickets because I’m sometimes a reviewer, sometimes a guest. When I do part with cash, I’m unlikely to be in a premium seat. But whatever the price, a short person (by which I mean under five feet five inches tall) is frequently at a disadvantage. I swear there’s a club consisting of lanky men with big heads whose sole purpose is to book the seat directly in front of mine – just out of devilment. My worst experience of blotted-out-view-when-in-a-posh-stalls-seat was at Ian McKellen’s King Lear at the Duke of York’s. I was reviewing that night and in the first half I leaned so far to the left to catch a glimpse of the lauded knight that I became unexpectedly well acquainted with the nice woman who happened, poor thing, to be sitting next to me. Come the interval, I begged front-of-house for help, acquired a child’s booster cushion, and – at last – caught some of the detail of Sir Ian’s magisterial performance, around the edges anyway.

Assuming punters less than super-size (the new norm, it seems) in the way, there are some theatres where “restricted view” need not always cause anxiety. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is one such: given the Renaissance style of the building, almost no-one has a completely clear sightline, but for most the restriction is no more than a spindly pillar. The Almeida has some excellent seats at non-eye-watering prices, which reveal very nearly everything. And the Royal Court’s seats in the upper circle, where there might be a minimal rail in the way, are perfectly reasonable.

Colin Tierney and Abigail Cruttenden in Swive (Elizabeth)Colin Tierney and Abigail Cruttenden in Swive (Elizabeth) at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse ©Johan Persson

Most theatres in the West End were, of course, built for different times. (I have sometimes wondered about crinolines and insufficient ladies’ loos, but we’ll let that pass.) You might question, though, when parting with £35 plus booking fee – the unkindest financial blow of all, sometimes more than 10 per cent extra – for a “restricted view” seat just how they get away with it. At the Playhouse to see Cyrano de Bergerac recently, I had to sit in a sort of S-shape, bent forward, head far to the right, to see anything at all through a hole in the upper circle balustrade several rows below me. I spotted that the middle section of the front row was empty and – never one to miss an opportunity – dashed forward in the interval, only to find that all the seats had been removed, leaving the backs. One can only speculate: an outbreak of bedbugs? A recent health-and-safety pronouncement about non-ergonomic-shaped seats? Who knows? Others, more stalwart than I, crouched on the floor to peer through the gaps in the balustrade. I admired what I saw of James McAvoy and co, but I wish I’d had a more comfortable experience.

The same fee bought me a relatively good preview end-of-row, restricted view seat near the back of the stalls for Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter Theatre (where previous upper circle experiences had been akin to that at Cyrano). The seats downstairs are stepped so that big heads don’t completely obliterate the view.

Some tips. The new, rather gorgeous, Bridge Theatre has a few folding seats in the stalls on the ends of rows in the middle section. No use if your bum is enormous or if you’re on a romantic date as two do not occur together, but perfectly comfortable otherwise and a fraction of the price of the adjacent seats. The Young Vic has some £20 tickets and sometimes £10 ones. I saw the in-demand Fairview from one of these and got every unsettling nuance.

Occasionally, a box will be a good option. I shared one with a teacher enjoying a half term treat when The Glass Menagerie was getting rave reviews at the Gielgud in 2018. There was a “restricted view” warning, but you can move your chair or even stand and there will never be a pestilential bonce in the way. We had each paid £15 and, the environment being rather more companionable than rows of seats, enjoyed a chat about the play in the interval.

Slips – those seats usually in a single row at the side of the upper circle – can be a bargain. Company, another production at the Gielgud, cost me £12 and, apart from being a little cramped (but then, there has to be some advantage to being a shorty), was absolutely fine. The National has other bargains, but the slips at the Lyttelton are delightful – loads of leg room and luxurious extra space in a comfortable chair, with no more lost (recently, for me, of The Welkin) than a sliver of the side of the stage. All for £15. No intervening coiffes or brainboxes and no need to worry about screening the view from others by leaning forward – often a considerable difficulty in the cheapest seats at the Dorfman.

The Welkin (c) Brinkhoff MoegenburgThe Welkin at the Lyttelton ©Brinkhoff Moegenburg

And sometimes, in the West End, if you are very lucky, you might be upgraded from your less than perfect position. The best chance for this is a matinée at a production that has nearly run its course.

This is not intended to be a comprehensive survey. I have not, for instance, mentioned the “rush” where some theatres offer excellent seats at a flat rate on line once a week. This is a good idea, but you might need to clear an hour or two to wait by your computer. Then there are various offerings for community and school groups, younger theatregoers and – less often these days – for “seniors”. It’s always worth doing a bit of homework to find out exactly what’s going.

The best advice is to learn from experience where the reasonably priced, least problematic seats can be found. And, where possible, go to the box office. The staff can usually tell you, for instance, which side of the auditorium might be better for a particular production. And there is no dreaded booking fee, despite the fact that here someone is actually working and interacting with the public.

Unfortunately, no-one can predict where the big heads will be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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