It’s a perennial complaint that the West End is putting itself out of the reach of 'ordinary' theatregoers — or at least the regular ones that used to be its bread and butter, making regular theatre visits every week or month. Now, with tickets for a play pushing up to £60 and for a musical at £70 at standard box office prices, most shows also offer what are called 'premium' price tickets, as well — ever-increasing bands of the 'best' seats, sold at £20 or £30 more than that (or even, in the case of The Book of Mormon, three times that price).
Of course, this is a capitalist business model, and prices are dictated, partly, by simply what the market will bear. And theatre tickets are unique in at least one regard: unlike a manufacturing industry, where they can simply make more of the product to meet the demand, theatre seats are a fixed inventory. When they’re sold, they’re sold. You can’t make more. So the way the producer makes more yield on them is simply to increase the price they are being sold at.
And why shouldn’t they, when they have a hit? After all, more productions fail than ever succeed, so the moment they have something successful, they can start to offset the losses elsewhere.
But the trouble is longer term. It’s fine when you have a buoyant market, with people clamouring to see your show; but what happens when you don’t? The audience that wants to gravitate to the latest 'must-see' hit won’t necessarily be there for the other shows anymore. They will have been priced out by the perception, if not the reality, that tickets are prohibitively expensive, and think that theatre isn’t for them. (And those who are still loyal fans will have spent all their savings on seeing the one must-see hit rather than spreading the same money over three shows).
The West End director Jamie Lloyd, a former associate at the Donmar Warehouse and who is currently represented by The Maids at Trafalgar Studios and Dr Faustus at the Duke of York’s Theatre, has fired a broadside against the presiding culture of the West End, which he has labelled “corrupt,” telling the UK trade paper The Stage that celebrity casting had created a “massive problem” in relation to ticket prices. “There are a lot of companies and producers out there who will… effectively exploit the profile of actors in a show by charging tickets that are soaring way past the £100 mark, which I think is outrageous. If you have a big house, and if you’ve got a lot of seats, then your tickets should come down, they should not go up.” He added that “allowing tickets to go up to £140 or more and then announce you are recouping after eight or nine weeks” is “corrupt and it needs to be addressed.”
His own productions have regularly used profile actors, including The Maids that features Orange is the new Black star Uzo Aduba, while Dr Faustus has Game of Thrones star Kit Harington in the title role. Top ticket prices for Dr Faustus are £85, though the theatre is also advertising a £100 “blue package” that includes “choice of variety box, welcome drink and ATG Theatre gift”.
Perhaps the problem is closer to home than Mr. Lloyd would like to admit. But it’s good that someone is speaking up about it.
My own view is that a ticket is too expensive for many at £100 or £500, so I don’t care that someone is profiting at the top end of the market. My problem is allowing people access at the lower end of the market. Bottom prices need to be held low — it was sitting in the top balconies of many London theatres that my love of theatre was ignited. In his defence, Lloyd has ensured that there are £15 tickets for his shows, offset from the more expensive offerings; but the Michael Grandage Company, which also operates as a commercial West End theatre company, has gone even further. It makes sure that 25% of every house is just £10. And that’s not just for the worst seats at the top of the house, but there’s a smattering of tickets elsewhere, too. That’s the way to build audiences of the future.
The views and opinions expressed are soley those of the original author and not necessarily those of The Hospital Club. For rolling theatre news and reviews, follow Mark Shenton's Twitter feed @ShentonStage