Could unisex be the answer to the West End’s toilet troubles?

In Features, London theatre, Native, Opinion by Susan ElkinLeave a Comment

I am available for hire as theatre lavatories consultant. My rates are reasonable. And if any venue, especially in the West End, thinks it doesn’t need my services then I have news for you. You do.

I hope you’re reading this, Cameron Mackintosh, because I know your plans for the Ambassadors Theatre have been submitted to Westminster City Council. And as things stand, toilet facilities in your latest acquisition are appalling.

Females didn’t, apparently, urinate in the 19th century when most of these buildings were designed, but I’m afraid they do in 2015.

The Ladies is half-way down a steep staircase. The door is very narrow and you open it at your own peril and that of any hapless person who happens to be ascending or descending. And there’s so little space inside that you really need to leave your bag with a friend outside on the pavement.

You can stand at the basin to wash your hands only if there’s no one else inside trying to access one of the three – that’s right three – cubicles. I hope you’ve noticed, or can imagine, what it’s like during busy theatre intervals when the queue snakes out and up the staircase.

Ambassadors Theatre, West End

Ambassadors Theatre, West End

Not that Ambassadors is the worst. The Fortune Theatre gets that accolade. There isn’t room in the cubicle to stand upright and pull your knickers up. You have to do a sort of half back bend and an athletic wriggle. I have no idea how you cope if you’re obese, disabled or elderly. These are extreme examples, but most older theatre buildings have a Loos Problem – Leicester Square Theatre, for example, where the space is so narrow that you can’t wash your hands without being cannoned into by another user. The Vaudeville is grossly inadequate too… and I could go on.

OK, so as you may just have noticed, I’m female. Although I have on several occasions wandered into the gents’ facilities in theatres, I’ve never lingered long enough to make a study. My concern is for the (usually) woeful provision of women’s facilities. Females didn’t, apparently, urinate in the 19th century when most of these buildings were designed, but I’m afraid they do in 2015. So do their children, which makes shows for young audiences, of which I attend a large number, even more of a problem.

  • Point one, for all you male architects and venue managers, is a matter of elementary biology, which seems often to escape your notice. Women do not come equipped with a convenient and speedy integral hose. They have to lock themselves in a cubicle and do lots of complicated stuff with clothes. It takes longer. So women need far more facilities than men not fewer.
  • Point two, since there are never enough lavatories, women learn from infancy to queue politely even when they’re bursting. There’s an etiquette to it. You need to stand outside the cubicle area rather than in the centre of it so that you can see when one becomes available and take your turn. Did any architect ever recognise this and allow for it? Watch what happens at the Barbican where there are, in fact, plenty of cubicles but no one can see whether they’re vacant so a long queue extends up the steps outside the lowest floor facilities in most intervals.

New theatre buildings have an opportunity to put all this right. The new Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford has 42 cubicles for women and most of the time it seems adequate. The Globe isn’t too bad either.

Barbican Centre

Barbican Centre

But mind the pitfalls. Don’t ever, for example, put hand basins inside cubicles as at the otherwise excellent New Diorama. It just makes for longer queues because each individual spends more time within. And since the Royal Festival Hall was refurbed, there’s one absurd place upstairs where the same narrow passage leads to both ladies and gents – the latter can’t get through because the former are, of course, queuing. What on earth were the designers thinking?

So what’s to be done? Something radical, please.

Personally I’d have no objection to unisex lavatories, for example, if it meant faster and more efficient through-put for everyone. Or what about taking out some of the bars and kiosks and putting in additional loos? Yes, I know that would cost the theatres some revenue, but that’s well down my worry list given the price of theatre tickets.

I think every theatre, especially old ones, should be looking very closely at its lavatory arrangements with a real will to find some solutions. Think outside the box … which reminds me, don’t we have too many unused ones? Scope for a rethink?

Meanwhile, you know where I am, Cameron.

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin is a former teacher of secondary English. She has also been a very active and eclectic freelance journalist for more than 25 years. She now focuses on education, performing arts and books, and was education and training editor at The Stage newspaper 2015-2016. Susan is the author of over 40 books, mostly on education and performing arts topics, including So You Want to Work in Theatre (Nick Hern Books). In 2016, she launched her personal website susanelkin.co.uk.

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Susan Elkin on LinkedinSusan Elkin on RssSusan Elkin on Twitter
Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin is a former teacher of secondary English. She has also been a very active and eclectic freelance journalist for more than 25 years. She now focuses on education, performing arts and books, and was education and training editor at The Stage newspaper 2015-2016. Susan is the author of over 40 books, mostly on education and performing arts topics, including So You Want to Work in Theatre (Nick Hern Books). In 2016, she launched her personal website susanelkin.co.uk.

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