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Can’t pay? Won’t see (or hear)!….

Just last week Robert Gore-Langton wrote a column in the Daily Telegraph that was headlined: “Jerusalem - whatever happened to sensible prices?” He began the piece by saying, “Occasionally, there crops up in the West End a show you can’t afford to miss. Then there are those you can’t afford to see. Jerusalem manages to be both.”

He goes on to call it, “The most entertaining new play in years and the theatre event of the century so far,” and says, “At last, I thought while watching it, here is a play that my 19-year-old son and his cronies would adore. It might even convert him to theatre, which he regards through bitter experience as an overrated diversion for people like me and other assorted ‘losers’. So I bought tickets for him and a chum. The damage for a pair of seats at the back of the stalls? £104. As they say in the West Country, you’re havin’ a laugh. In the end, my son loved the show. Really loved it. But he won’t recommend it to his friends. Even the seats in the gods cost around £20 full-price - not a sum anyone he knows is likely to shell out.”

Given my privileged position (and I never take it for granted), I seldom have to “shell out” myself - but Jerusalem is an exception. Funnily enough, this weekend my partner and I are taking two friends of his to see it and its cost us £198 for four tickets.

Sonia Friedman, its prolific producer, has replied to defend the prices being charged. She pointed out in another column that there are always offers to be had for younger, poorer audiences - and not just in the gods. “For me, it’s very important that young people and those who can’t afford to pay top prices can get in to see my shows, and I always ensure that an amount of cheaper tickets are available every day. Not every producer believes in doing this (after all, we’re not running charities), but I do. At the moment, we’re selling 20 day seats at only £10 each for every performance of Jerusalem - which is extraordinary, given that the play has been such a hit. We also have a scheme called ‘Pay What You Like’, in which you turn up at the box office and pay what you can for seats in the front row of the balcony. We even had two people who paid one penny each to see the show - admittedly, the front row of the balcony are not great seats. Concessions are also available both on the day and in advance.”

Well, at least she admitted that those balcony seats aren’t great. But if you’re not there on pay what you like, you pay what they like. I’ve recently written here about how poor that experience can be; and as it happens, I got an e-mail just yesterday from a friend, Tim Connor, who had just been to see Jerusalem and said it was “extraordinary” - but pointed out, “though the Gods of the Apollo (an apt description, I’ve just realised!) really are miles away. £25 gets you no facial expressions and extensive passages of complete inaudibility. Ho hum!”

Maybe he, like me, is simply spoilt - we’re used to close-up experiences in smaller theatres, or from better seats - and he goes on to say, “Now that I know the play is truly outstanding, I may revisit and splash out on a fab seat. I was aware throughout the performance that what I was seeing and (partially) hearing was brilliant - I had to buy the script afterwards, and it’s every bit as great as I sensed it was - shame that I could only hear snatches of brilliance at the time!”

So you get a deeply compromised performance from a deeply compromised seat in that top balcony. Perhaps they should all be “pay what you like” - and by the sound of it, a single penny is about as much as the producer should be getting for them. But market forces apply, and she charges what the market will apparently bear.

Gore-Langton suggests, “Something’s got to change in the West End. Audiences beyond current well-heeled patrons and a small band of over-mortgaged theatre addicts are finite. For its future, theatre needs to cultivate the young.”

Friedman insists she’s doing her bit. But she defends the wider pricing structure, commenting, “West End tickets are not expensive, especially given the amount that producers have to pay in order to put on a show. The West End is an expensive business,” before proceeding to enumerate some of those costs. And people, she notes, are still willing to pay for it. (The show is a nightly sell-out). But she then also admits, “There are ways to buy affordable West End tickets. Visit whatsonstage.com and lastminute.com. Go to the ticket booths in Leicester Square, which have offers every day. Finding a good deal involves digging around, but it’s no more complicated than booking a flight. If you phone British Airways direct, they’re going to charge the top price. But if you hunt around a bit, you’ll find an offer. Somewhere, for most shows, there’s always a deal.”

In other words, there’s always a bargain basement or a remainders bin somewhere. But why overprice it to begin with, if you know you’re going to discount it anyway? She may be right about the benighted BA, but Virgin, at least, offer a price promise guarantee on their website, “You won’t find the same Virgin Atlantic flight for less on any UK website.” So you know you’re not being hoodwinked into paying over the odds.

The theatre, on the other hand, seems to thrive on offering price differentials. Even the offers themselves vary. (Theatremonkey.com is the best site I know for aggregating the different deals doing the rounds, so you can find them all in one place before choosing which one to take up). And eventually, of course, it chases its own customers away in the process: why go direct to the box office - where the management keeps all of the income - when it’s cheaper, in fact, to go to an offer website instead (where they will only get a percentage of the total)?

In the same way, just earlier this week I paid a visit to Dress Circle, the famous specialist CD record shop for all things showbiz in Covent Garden. Maybe it was the time of day, but there was only one other customer besides me in there. I picked up a CD and thought of buying it. It was £12.99. Then I thought: let me check Amazon first. Sure enough, I did when I got home: it was just £9.77 there. So I saved over £3, or a quarter of the price, and it came straight to my front door instead of me going out to find it.

Of course I shall miss browsing in stores like Dress Circle if it wasn’t there. Ditto the little classical CD shop next door to the London Coliseum, which I gather won’t be there much longer. But given the inflated prices they seem compelled to charge, I am nowadays shopping around, just as regular theatregoers do. Soon the theatre box offices may turn out to be as redundant as record shops.

14 Comments

Theatre pricing is no different to anything else. Book early and you get a choice of seats, paying a premium price if you want the best seats or rather less if you want to be in the gods. Book late and you get what's left, sometimes at a reduced price. Book via a third party and you may pay more or you may get it cheaper. It's exactly the same in the travel industry and the same principle applies with most retailers and their sales.

I don't think Jerusalem is overpriced, either when compared to other shows or with other forms of entertainment. At least you come away from the play with a feeling of exhilaration at having been part of an extraordinary theatrical experience. People pay as much to watch West Ham or Portsmouth or the England rugby team and go home thoroughly disillusioned! There are plenty of initiatives to get people into theatres at reduced prices, but ultimately the individual has to decide whether they want to spend their £10 or £20 on a great night at the theatre, or on a few pints, packets of cigarettes or whatever their interest may be.

These £10 tickets that Ms Friedman is talking about are only available from 10am on the day of the show. I don't know about the rest of the planet, but I, like most people in London, have to work from 9am. And I don't think my boss would take kindly to me rolling in at 11.30 because I've been queuing up for tickets that I might not get because there's only 20 available.

We go to the theatre maybe four times a year because we can't afford the £100+ it costs us to go each time and sit in seats where we can see and hear and aren't surrounded by people chatting because they can't see and hear.

If the Theatre Royal in Norwich can charge £30 a head to see Waiting for Godot, I fail to see why the Haymarket insists on £55 for exactly the same show. It's not like they're going to have anything less than a full house.

The costs associated with running a theatre in London are going to be higher than for a provincial theatre. That said, I paid £20 per ticket to see Waiting for Godot at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket last week. It was via one of the late booking websites for a Tuesday night. We had seats in row D of the Dress Circle. Cheap tickets are available from various sources if you look for them and if you're prepared to go midweek.

As LizD points out, these cheap tickets are often hard to get hold of. This issue is even worse when you consider that not every student or young person lives in London; when the cheap tickets are only available on the day, it's a choice between either making a costly/long journey in the hope of getting a ticket or miss out. I always end up having to just pay the full price to be certain of getting a ticket.
Some theatres that offer student prices let you book in advance but insist on seeing proof of age/student status before handing the ticket over at the box office. This should be policy everywhere.

The A Night Less Ordinary scheme is all well and good also but the terms and conditions vary so much between venues that only the most keen theatregoers will trawl through every website

Ms Friedman is right to stand her ground. Yes the ticket prices are high but so are the costs and if you want the quality you should pay for it. The problem is that the garbage in the West End costs the same as the gems. I all likelihood Jerusalem won't discount as it will sell out. So, wait for the tour (and hope most of the cast do some of the dates). And, instead of that ridiculous get into london thing that just gives more discounts to people who only ever pay for discounted tickets anyway, redirect that cash into genuine targeted audience development. Put the ticket in the hand of the 19 year old and they may go.

Prices do inflate massively for London, take the tour of Les Miserables which has a top price of £49 in Birmingham this week, similar seats for the same cast and show at the Barbican cost up to £85.

I guess sometimes it is to pay for the additonal cost of a West End theatre but also think it is sometimes down to Producer's charging what they think people will pay. Its a classic example of market forces with Les Miserables, producers know that they have a huge following and people would pay dearly to see it at its original home, combined with the attraction of seeing the new staging. It is hard to get good seats for the short run now.

If you don't have a lot of cash and want to see a LOT of theatre then I can massively recommend www.playbyplay.co.uk. You pay £75 a year to join then get offered between 3 to 12 shows a day for £3 a ticket to fill up seats. There is a lot of fringe offered but usually one or two west end shows too. Sometimes they offer top shows in return for filling in an online questionaire that takes ten minutes. You are sworn to absolute secrecy about what you see but I gurantee it is absolutely worthwhile.

"It's no more complicated than booking a flight". I should bloody well hope not! Am I alone in thinking that booking a ticket for a show should be a lot easier, quicker, and cheaper than trying to leave the country?

Jerusalem was a great show, but the prices are ridiculous - we were in the circle which cost more than £100 for the two of us. I usually sit in the upper circle/balcony/gods, whichever is the cheapest, these were a birthday present. I fully accept and expect to be uncomfortable and to have a poor view when I choose the cheap seats - which is fine if they are cheap. I never resent having a restricted view in The Courtyard, for example, because the seats are a fiver. I did resent paying £27 for the Haymarket, where the benches in the balcony are so narrow and cramped that one leaves with a hunch.

How hard is it to have a sensible, sliding scale, where stalls and dress circle are more expensive, and upper circle, balcony, restricted view etc are cheaper? Then you pay your money and you take your choice, rather then feeling resentful and ripped of regardless of how good the performance is .

It's all about how badly do you want to see Jerusalem...

Take a day off or pull a sickie if you want the 10 AM tickets. There's a great feeling about starting off the day getting the tickets and then rounding it off seeing the show.

Plus you meet all sorts of people in the queue. Once I was contemplating courting a girl, then of my acquaintance, until I got talking to the person in front of me in the queue who had known her at university. He alluded to the fact that she had been a wildcat sexual predator at university and was known to have had a sexual disease. I saw the play and forever after steered clear of intimate relations with the girl .

I think all of us, even Ms Friedman agree that the prices in the West End are outrageous. But so is the price of everything these days. The damage however is not in the short term, it's in the long term. Those same people that won't pay £200 for 4 tickets to Jerusalem ( so they can take their children) , will find other less expensive ways to entertain their off spring, and so the kids don't go to the theatre - they do something else. Then they get into the habit of doing something else and not going to the theatre at all because a. they never got "into" it and b. it's too expensive and c. it's just as hard to book a ticket as it is to book a flight on Ryannair ( and has just as many supplementary charges as well). Ms Friedman can rest easy in the short term - Jerusalem is a sellout and a must see event. But do you suppose she is going to charge the same prices when she brings "The Mountaintop" back to the West End? She (and other producers) need to think of the long term ramifications of charging so much now. They'll pay the price later.

As a Brit now living in New York I have experienced both sides, and the discounts do seem more plentiful in New York and are quite often steeper, especially if the show isn't selling so well, than tickets I have found on discount in London.

The best website for Broadway deals is http://www.broadwaybox.com/ although playbill.com has deals too although broadly the same.

To all those saying ticket prices are too expensive...well they can't be because people are paying those prices. I've always thought the published prices are for the tourists and the uninformed. If they are willing to pay those prices,why advertise there is a discount?

There are two things I object to though. Preview prices should be discounted by 25% on post preview prices. Otherwise why is it a preview? (Many shows offer discounts in their preview periods, but only off top price).

The other, that I really object to, is to the "convenience charges" and extra fees that all the ticket websites charge.

Why can't productions sell tickets on their websites directly? Why do you have to go through ticketmaster etc.? Presumably theatre websites would then be able to charge no fee. It's not like ticketmaster is doing all the marketing for the show in return for the fees.

Luckily I work in Times Square so I can just walk any of the theatre in my lunch hour to avoid those charges, but they are very unpleasant tax on the ticket price.

What really annoys me about the pricing structure of Jerusalem is the misleading descriptions on the NIMAX website.

Highly limited restricted views now become 'side views' and decent seats now become 'premium' seats.

Having worked at the Apollo on sold out shows years ago we became adept at dealing with the queue of complaints about the views from what must be the worst designed auditorium in London but at least the seating price structure reflected this - now it seems its a case of charging as much as they can get away with.

For those of us who dont live in London day seats are out of the question and at £60 a go sorry this is one hit I will miss

jerusalem won't be making much of a profit in the west end - the cast is too big and the run too short. i think sonia's just making sure she covers her costs on this one.

We paid full price to sit at the back of the stalls |(Jerusalem) - I am 6ft 2in, tall but not freakishly tall - there was not enough room to sit normally.

It was worse than a Ryan air or Easy jet flight (airline companies i no longer use.)

the difference being that I play a lot less to fly than i do to watch theatre!

the play is great - but i was in pain for most of it.

Sort it out Freidman.

As a New York theatergoer, I'm just impressed that 20 pound seats are available, even if they're the faraway seats. The pricing structure used to be more varied in Broadway theaters, but these days the "cheap seats" in the mezz and the balcony are usually $60-$80, with anything in the front mezz or orchestra always at the top price (which has hit nearly $140 now). As goap mentioned, though, there are fortunately discounts available through sites like playbil and www.nytix.com.

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