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.