What’s value for money in the theatre? And, since critics rarely pay for our tickets, how would we know anyway? Still, in an interesting blog on The Guardian website, Lyn Gardner – who has before told us about buying tickets for her family to see Hairspray which she hadn’t got press tickets for, as she wasn’t reviewing it – poses the question when she compares the cost of seeing two shows against their running times: a 75-minute (including interval) double-bill, The Family Plays at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs (with a ticket price of £15) and the 6.5 hour double-bill of Nicholas Nickleby at the West End’s Gielgud Theatre (for which she reports that mid-price tickets for both parts would set you back £65, working out at under £11 an hour).
Lyn then suggests, “Such calculations are, of course, a complete absurdity because good value in the theatre is not entirely based on price. I enjoyed The Family Plays rather more than I enjoyed Nickleby, which is essentially Les Mis without the singing and goes on for a long time and then goes on some more. I wouldn’t want to see Desperately Seeking Susan even if it was free, and clearly I’m not alone which is why it is closing on Saturday after just a few weeks.”
This contains a salient point: most theatres live and die by their box offices (though in the subsidised sector the commercial imperative may be cushioned a bit); and the ultimate barometer of whether people think something is worth paying for is whether or not they actually do. (Confession time: with Desperately Seeking Susan rushing to an early death this weekend, I’m actually paying to see it again at its last matinee, as I’m intrigued to see it away from the glare of the first night and try to understand its subsequent negative reception, my own included).
Mel Brooks, sure that he had created another Producers-style monster hit before Young Frankenstein had even opened on Broadway last month, pushed the boat out – and ticket price higher than it had ever been before – by instituting a premium $450 ticket; but are people actually buying them? (Since Young Frankenstein, unlike the rest of Broadway, has also elected not to report its weekly grosses, nobody actually knows. But should they not sell at that price, I imagine the tickets will be marked back down to the “regular” price of $120 to offload them – and in turn, some of those locations may even end up at the half price booth in time, so therefore sell for $60).
But if high ticket prices are one way of monitoring, and cashing in on, the laws of supply and demand, the Donmar may have handed some unscrupulous people a cash cow by charging their regular prices for their current production of Othello (with a top price of just £29) that are now changing hands at up to £1,200 each. According to a press release from Viagogo, “Europe’s secondary ticketing company” (ie. re-sale merchants that negotiates tranactions between people who want to sell tickets and those who want to buy them), “On average tickets to Othello have resold at 47 times higher than the face value. Eric Baker, CEO, viagogo said: ‘We’ve always known that the most dedicated fan is willing to go to the end of the earth to get hold of that golden ticket. viagogo’s research shows that it’s not just football or rugby world cup tickets British people covet, but a top performance of Shakespeare is just as big a pull.’”
The exclusivity of this event, and the lack of supply to meet the demand, has created a rather unsavoury situation in which the Donmar more than ever is going to be perceived as a club for initiates only (or those with either the money to buck the system or prepared to put in the time and effort of queuing for the ten day seats that the theatre releases on the day; the nephew of an American friend queued from 5.30am, and was third in line). Even Nica Burns, who used to run the Donmar in the 80s, told me the other night she can’t get a ticket!
But on a broader scale that is precisely what is happening on Broadway and in the West End: it sometimes feel like the box offices should simply post a notice, “Hello suckers”, as Velma Kelly says when she kicks off the second act of Chicago. Yet, just as Velma and Roxie spend the evening showing us ways to buck the system, the good news in the commercial theatre is that there are many ways of doing so, too, and you’ll be the sucker if you actually pay the prices demanded.
High prices, however, have another interesting side-effect: they give more power (and responsibility) to critics, who have to act as a consumer guide to audiences – is this show actually worth spending your money on? And the clearest indication of whether we think it is, of course, is the star ratings system. But they don’t necessarily allow us the light and shade that the review itself might give: a colleague last night queried my apparently generous three-star review for the Barbican’s Jack and the Beanstalk (which she had awarded one star to), but admitted she had only skimmed the words to which the rating was attached. (I, in turn, said it was a three-star review that should have probably been a two-star one, in hindsight; at which point another colleague with us re-calibrated his rating, too, from the four-stars he actually gave to three). So we’re not infallible, either.