Blog: Lack of ladies' loos

In response to The Stage's West End Toilets Survey, our Theatres Adviser Tom Stickland takes a closer look at the issue and what can be done.

2019 at the Theatres Trust got off to an interesting start with a flurry of media of calls to our office about ladies’ loos – specifically the lack of them in West End theatres.

This was prompted by the publication of the results of The Stage newspaper’s West End Toilets Survey, which highlighted the under-provision of women’s toilets.

According to the survey, at capacity, the average theatre would need a 57-minute interval to allow all women to go to the toilet. As we said to The Stage, not every audience member will use the toilet in the interval so designing buildings for that eventuality would be a poor use of space. However, that’s not to say that a lack of loos isn’t a big issue.

In conjunction with the ABTT we publish technical standards that theatres should be aiming to meet; amongst other information critical for theatre operation this includes the number of toilets, wash hand basins and other sanitary facilities that should be provided. For new build theatres, the standard is over 1 toilet per 25 female theatre members and as The Stage’s survey reveals, very few West End theatres are meeting that standard. Something the survey doesn’t cover is where the toilets are located in relation for the audiences who might use them, the technical standards requirement relates to theatres on the same level as the audience.

We’ve heard that female audience members often miss the opening chords over the barricades in Act II of Les Miserables at the Queen’s Theatre– which is why that particular theatre is looking to provide more toilets during its upcoming closure for refurbishment. 

Theatre operators are all too aware of this issue and major refurbishment when they do happen will look to tackle this. But these are expensive projects and there are challenges particularly in Victorian and Edwardian theatres. These theatres are usually listed buildings so that creates additional considerations with regards to what can be done. Just as big an issue in central London is the lack of space, both front of house and around the theatre.

These were theatres built for different times when both audience demographics and behaviour were different from today. Having a drink in the theatre bar before the show and during the interval is now part of the overall theatre-going experience – which, not to put too fine a point on it, increases the need for toilets all round.

Theatres are also now competing in an increasingly diverse entertainment market and need to ensure that their customers have the best possible experience, become repeat customers – and are happy to bolster the venue’s revenue by spending at the bar. So it is vital for theatres as businesses that the lasting impression is of the show, not the queuing for the loo.

This isn’t an issue limited to the West End – it is a problem at theatres across the country.  Applications to our grant schemes invariable include theatres looking to improve their toilet facilities and we previously ran a dedicated scheme, Spend a Penny, which helped eight theatres to improve their toilets, but demand was much higher.

So what can be done?

Theatre Royal Wakefield, a beautiful Matcham-theatre and a Spend a Penny grant recipient, built an extension on the side of the building to house additional toilets alongside a larger bar and new studio space.

Sadly, this is not an option for most London theatres where there just isn’t any space to build, but we are already seeing theatres thinking creatively about making better use of their existing space. The Queen’s Theatre, for example, has planning permission to convert its old lightwells into toilets.

Converting the existing men’s toilets for women’s is unlikely to solve the issue given the differences in space requirements for cubicles and urinals however many theatres have switched some of their existing facilities to being gender-neutral as a way of rebalancing provision and reducing queue times. Lyric Hammersmith particularly comes to mind as somewhere where this seems to be working well.

Beyond women’s toilets, The Stage survey also looked at accessible toilets. This is an equally important issue – we will return to it another time to give it the space and analysis it deserves.

I perhaps didn’t expect my return to work at the start of 2019 to be quite so dominated by discussions about toilets, but it is actually a pretty significant part of our work at the Theatres Trust. Whether we are looking at theatre designs, commenting on planning applications or considering grant applications, making sure they will create theatres that will give audiences a great experience is important and enough toilets in the right places is a big part of that.

If you want to discuss the options for your venue, please do get in touch with us.

Photo by Tim Mossholder from Pexels