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The £90 vs 99p Store of West End Theatre

I love the West End with all my heart, but I fear that the soul is going out of it, now that a deadly combination of chronic greed and desperation is setting in all over (and that’s before we even reach the Olympics, and the audience drifts away with them).

Whether it’s Thriller Live, now hogging the Lyric on Shaftesbury Avenue - once a major address for plays - for an indeterminate run, and an even more ghastly, opportunistic successor Respect La Diva that opened on Friday offering a pop jukebox parade that is more end-of-the-pier (and the road) than even a Vegas floorshow or cruise ship, the West End is scraping the barrel now.

Fortunately, the latter is acting only as a filler at the Garrick, but then Chicago, which we thought we’d finally seen off, returns there now and I’m sure for ever from November 11, so all hope for this venerable theatre is extinguished both as fast as one’s eardrums are pierced by the cacophony of noise currently on offer there, or the prospect of ever seeing something new there again in the future.

It’s difficult to explain just how bad Respect La Diva is and how little respect, let alone dignity, it brings to the West End. No, not every musical revue can be Side by Side by Sondheim, or even The Rat Pack Live, but this noisy, nasty and cheap show fails even by the low standards it sets itself to provide anything more than a perfunctory parade of songs that were once sung by divas from Aretha Franklin to Beyoncé, some of it linked by an unspeakably feeble narrator (sometime X-Factor runner-up and Eurovision entrant Andy Abraham) and a chronically embarrassing device of an ambitious stage manager with singing aspirations.

OK, one terrible show doesn’t spell the death of the West End in and of itself; but it’s surely a sign of the times that the writing is on the wall when shows like this get given house room. But even the West End’s attempts at real quality are oddly doomed by the greed of the producers in putting them on: while it is undoubtedly welcome and ambitious for the Theatre Royal, Haymarket to offer a residency to a director of Trevor Nunn’s calibre to curate a season of work there as its artistic director, it then beggars belief that it should charge a whopping £90 premium price on its current run of The Tempest plus the next show under his auspices, The Lion in Winter. (And yes, Respect La Diva has a premium price ticket, too: £55 against its £40 regular top price).

I’ve decided to start naming and shaming the shows that impose these iniquitous inflated prices — my weekly Sunday Express theatre round-up always includes a header of the shows I’m covering that week, in which I offer a quick reference guide to the show’s title, a star rating, the theatre name, box office telephone number, and the price range. In yesterday’s column, I duly published prices in full, with an extra mention for the premium prices: for The Tempest, they are £11-£60, premium £90; and for the current tour of Dirty Dancing that I reviewed at Bristol Hippodrome, they are £19.50-£44.50, premium £75.

And it’s revealing, too, that immediately below those is an entry for the National’s new production of The Kitchen, with price of just £12 to £30. That’s a third of the top price of seeing The Tempest at the Haymarket. Now, of course, the National have a huge government subsidy - the biggest in all of British theatre - whereas the Haymarket operate entirely without one; but audiences may simply give up on the West End entirely at this rate (and these rates), and simply go to the National where they are more welcome, with both more comfortable and welcoming facilities and the certainty of a quality threshold, too.

But it’s not just the National: we are blessed with many alternatives to the over-priced West End in London that theatregoers can simply avoid it entirely. I also caught up on Saturday evening with Alexi Kaye Campbell’s ambitious and provocative new play The Faith Machine at the Royal Court, where the best seat in the house (and most plush and most comfortable of any theatre in town) costs a mere £28.

Meanwhile, I also saw not one but two terrific shows at Southwark Playhouse in its two adjoining studios: the Friday night opening of The Belle’s Stratagem, and then a Saturday matinee for the a new (and brilliant) production of the Jason Robert Brown musical Parade. Southwark Playhouse is far from comfortable (especially in the damp Vault, where Parade is playing and the tiny metal chairs are bolted tightly together) and more than a little chaotic, where on Saturday afternoon there were two shows going up simultaneously, but only a solitary person staffing the box office. (Southwark Playhouse’s PR responded to a tweet in which I complained about this by saying that they usually have two people on box office, but one had rung in sick).

But even a late booked ticket at Southwark Playhouse is only £22.50: the theatre operates an airline-type sliding scale ticket scheme; the earlier you book, the cheaper it is, with seats starting at £10, then going up to £16, before they top out at £22.50. As Libby Purves writes in her review in The Times today of The Belle’s Stratagem, “It would work well down river at the Globe, but how grand to have such quality and fun so close at hand for weary southbound commuters: yours for a tenner right under London Bridge station. Theatrical enterprise like this makes you proud to be British.”

And that’s where regular and/or organised audiences will gravitate now that the West End has outpriced itself to all but those on expense accounts or discount ticket deals, which now polarises itself at two extremes only: those for whom no expense can be spared and the bargain basement (a friend recently commented that the pound shop that is the West End is rapidly turning into a 99p store).

It’s an extreme position for the commercial theatre to have adopted, and will lead to its abandonment by anyone who wants to plan their theatregoing with any kind of regularity without breaking the bank; they will simply get in early to the Donmar, Royal Court, Almeida and the quality fringe like Southwark Playhouse.

17 Comments

Not sure I'd cite Southwark Playhouse as an arbiter of good practice. This production at £10 a ticket fails to pay its actors, writers and directors....

http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/events/taleblazers/

Fair pay is the law. Fair play for actors.
http://actorsminimumwage.wordpress.com/

@Peter: I wasn't citing Southwark Playhouse as an arbiter of good practice -- just of good shows! I've rehearsed the debate about pay on the fringe before now at great length; perhaps we need to strike a balance between fleecing the audience (as the West End does) and fleecing the actors (as the fringe does), and find a way to PAY actors (and rest of staff) WITHOUT over-charging the audience along the way....

Full of vitriole this morning, Mark, aren't we? Completely agree with you about West End greed and value for money. Also, don't forget that from December those of us who travel in from the suburbs will have to pay for evening street parking, another disincentive. The National does stand out. Generally superior productions, convenient onsite parking for the whole evening for £8, good quality restaurant and cafe facilities that stay open after the performance. Compare this with the Barbican centre where their signature restaurant takes last orders 15 minutes BEFORE the current show finishes, making it impossible to eat there after. Also, their car park locks its doors at midnight, making it difficult to find somewhere else to go.

We have certainly been moving more and more to the fringe. When there are productions of such quality like THE HIRED MAN at the tiny Landor, which would put any West End production to shame, why go and see rubbish like Divas? Sadly, these productions will never be seen by the casual theatregoer due to lack of publicity. If it wasn't for the web and Twitter, and being a keen follower we would never have known about many gems we have seen.

@ Mark Shenton: Absolutely agree with you about the balance that needs to be struck, I feel its equality important to draw attention the fact that - when we highlight quality we must also not forget its inherent link into working practices, which regrettably the piece above did.
Whilst I agree West End prices are overly high, the West End typically pays staff a living wage and has good working conditions. On the fringe, the reverse is true on by only focussing on quality we do a wider disservice to those who daily create such quality. I hope we both agree that people, livelihoods and sustainability are equally as important as quality.

The Rat Pack side by side with the Garrick? It will be at the Wyndhams after Miss Daisy is driven off!
I am still able to find bargains in the West End simply by avoiding busy days and shopping around the reputable ticket sellers. The best being Priscilla for £15.00 a seat in stalls row E with clear view.
It appears that people aren't prepared to pay top prices for new shows in the West End having recently lost Lend me a tenor and the soon to leave Betty Blue Eyes. Both praised productions but not getting the bums on seats. These new additions were ripe for price cuts to attract audiences in but have lost out because they didn't...

Maybe theatres need to form some sort of committee to discuss the disparity between what audiences can pay (or are prepared to pay) & the amount of money needed to pay actors and other staff a good wage?

I know so many people who love popular theatre - but who only go once or twice a year because of the cost.

And your average actor works very hard for next to nothing.

Mark, the usual NT Olivier and Lyttelton price range is £12 to £45 with about half the tickets at top price. The Kitchen's £12 to £30 range, with many more lower priced tickets even within this cheaper range, is down to very substantial sponsorship by Travelex. Of course you already know this (like you know about worker subsidy of fringe shows) but it's misleading to refer only to the NT''s "hugw government subsidy."

Who buys premium seats? Are the public that gullible? £90 at the Haymarket - Crooks! (No pun intended).As for bunging in any old tripe as a filler, this says a lot about managements and costs.All these Producers bemoaning the cost of putting on a production bleat too much methinks.One can have a great time at the National, having seen Habit of Art,Frankenstein and Guvnors there it's been my main theatre venue for some reason.But lets not forget that we are subsidising it -to what extent I do not know.Today the mantra is let's recoup in weeks, not months or years.

Slightly pernickety point, ChrisM: "from December those of us who travel in from the suburbs will have to pay for evening street parking" - no. SOME (all right, most) of those of you who DRIVE in will have to pay.

Public transport isn't a feasible option for some theatregoers, including many suburbanites.

Totally agree. What also may be a factor is that as more and more 'celebrities' are stunt cast in West End shows, regardless of suitability or talent, the more producers have to hike up the ticket prices in order to pay the celebrities what they expect to be paid. Is it really worth it? Do celebrities really drag in more of an audience to justify dissuading genuine theatre lovers from going multiple times because the tickets are so expensive? It feels like producers are really missing a trick - often there will be a group of theatre fans who, under the right circumstances, will go and see your show more than once if they like it. Sometimes numerous times. While obviously this is not the case for every show, it's very rare that a production team will make an effort to cater to those fans when it's obvious that they exist, even though those will be the people who will come back again and bring friends. There was once a dearly departed West End show which would be my Go-To suggestion for where to take visiting friends - I've lost count of the number of times I saw it, because the reasonable ticket prices allowed me to do so. I definitely wouldn't have been back (perhaps at all) if £50 had been the best price I could find.

To be honest, I never pay premium price (it seems like a status symbol more than offering genuinely better views), and will only pay top price if it's something I desperately want to see, or something I believe justifies paying more for a closer seat. Because I have a large group of friends who are also theatre fans, there is usually someone who knows how to get cheaper tickets, or can recommend the best place to sit in terms of value for money. I also take advantage of daytickets when I can drag myself out of bed early on the weekend. But it's a shame that someone who isn't an active theatre fan might look on Ticketmaster, see that £60 is the cheapest they can get and come to the conclusion that all theatre is expensive and they can't afford it in any shape or form. If we want to sustain a high quality of theatre in West End and fringe venues, we've got to make it accessible for people who might not usually consider going, instead of alienating them (I just ask that we take their individually-wrapped sweets away from them first).

I often wonder if the rapid rise in WE prices is related to the rapid rise in costs charged by theatre owners to producers.

On Broadway, half the theatres are owned by the Shuberts, who built the theatres and paid for them all about 100 years ago. All of the other theatres have been in fairly solitary hands (Nederlanders, Jujamcyn) for decades.

In London - every theatre seems to change hands ever 5 years or so. New mortgages, new costs.

Meanwhile the theatreowners get their 10+ pp seats every performance, adding about 4000 from what they take from the producer ...

And the programs, which have information supplied by the producers, and which are sold to give information the punters want about the play the producer has produced - cost the theatre owner 88p or so, are sold at 3-4 quid each, with 100% of the profit going to the - wait for it - theatre owner.

And the producer pays the theatre owner for the box office staff that sells the tickets, and pays a per ticket charge for every ticket they print, and then oay the theatre owner a service charge for every ticket that the theatre's phone room or website sells.

Until the West End can slightly reform itself so that a producer is not being (boys boarding school expletive deleted) by the theatre owners at every turn, the state of the WE shall remain parlous.

The Producers could revolt. Unfortunately all four of the major theatre owners are also producers - and they would never vote to change the status quo. It would be instructive to see if they treat shows that they produce in their own venues as badly as they do those done by independent producers.

Is a struggling independent show at a Delfont Mackintosh Theatre, for example, treated the same as a struggling Cameron Mackintosh show at a Delfont Mackintosh theatre?

The utter lack of transparency in the West End will make it impossible to ever answer this question, unless a case can be made for self-trading.

It really frustrates me when people would rather charge audience members at an excessive rate and let actors play to half-empty houses, than drop their ticket prices and get more bums on the seats. No wonder people are going to the West End less frequently nowadays.

The two newest shows that spring to mind is Betty Blue Eyes and Lend Me A Tenor, both of which are closing, although they were both sourced from a film and a play respectively. Whilst musical revenue shows are still continuing, as it seems that audience members prefer to go see shows where they already know the songs, a 'safe' show. And so, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds are spent on a superfical and brightly coloured production, wrapped in a weak plot struggling to find some kind of message that the audience can leave with. And when the audience leave, after being bombared with song after song with very little plot development, all they have to say is 'Oh, the costumes were lovely.'

Rant over. Apologies, I hold a certain amount of loathing towards musical revenues.

Another thing to look out for is highly priced shows bringing in a star for the press night who then isn't in most of the performances. I see there's a feature in today's Guardian on someone who's not even in the show at the moment but comes back for one week at the end. And stalls tickets are £85 each throughout.

Completely agree that pricing is getting ridiculous and don't even get me started about the price of extremely mediocre wine, the programmes etc etc. I'd never pay for premium seats - just can't afford it or rather I can see several plays on the fringe for the same price.

I'm very selective about what I see in the West End because of the price and increasingly use the day seat option. Although, the Theatre Royal Haymarket seems to have decided that having Ralph Fiennes treading their boards is an excuse to squeeze even more profit out of theatre goers and have reduced the number of day seats for The Tempest from 20 to just 9. (And when you ask them about it, the box office staff are rather sniffy).

In response to the first comment, Peter:

I'm on of the members of Blacklight Theatre, the producing company for the event 'Taleblazers'.

We are an emerging company of graduates, looking to encourage and support colleagues. We can't pay equity minimum to cast and crew until we are publicly funded or supported. We can be publicly funded until we have a good portfolio, we can't generate a portfolio unless we create work. Everyone on the project is incredibly happy to be there, talented and passionate. There has to be a sense of camaraderie between emerging artists so we are able to produce new theatre. The high volume of applicants and participants in this season's Taleblazers will hopefully enable the next one to be fully financially supported. Everyone has to start somewhere.

Fair pay on the fringe is an age old argument. Yes, our actors on this project aren't paid, but neither are we, and neither does the company take any profit. It's just not as simple to demand pay with no experience, to gain experience you have to work for free.

I think it's only fair you look at the real aims of the production before you involve my company in an argument we have no part in.

I'd also like to post a response to Peter.

My name's Nicholas, I'm producing Taleblazers. While I can appreciate your perspective Peter, ultimately this is an event that showcases people. Actors need to be seen, directors need experience to land paid gigs, and writers need a platform, especially those over 26 and based outside of London.

There is no illusion from the off. Nobody receives pay for Taleblazers. We would if we could, and whilst fleecing people is a fair point to make, that's not what we do. There are many theatre companies that offer initiatives to similar effect. I find that many writers really appreciate the chance to have their work performed, given how competitive this industry is.

Moreover absolutely no profit goes in my pocket, or to other company members. We don't profit from this event. We invest it back into the company, to promote it, add to a budget for festivals, to producing a longer run of the play at the venue, and so on.

I would question the consequences of posting a link to the event, run by a company that only exists to support people not hinder their ability to make work and network.

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