I’ve regularly decried the ever-escalating price scales of the West End, not least over the iniquitous spread of premium pricing (which is, however, ultimately a matter of choice; if you’re stupid enough to pay that sort of money, they’ll be clever enough to take it from you). But there’s also a more pernicious spread of below-the-radar, compulsory charges, none of which revert to the producers of the plays you’re going to see, like booking fees or obligatory restoration charges that the theatre owners get the benefit of, all of which is working to drive the cost of going to the theatre even higher.
But a parallel steep rise has also gradually been affecting the fringe, and I’ve been slow to notice it. Of course, you don’t expect theatre critics to necessarily be on top of such matters: we don’t pay for (most of) our tickets, after all, so it doesn’t directly affect us.
The other day, however, I noted here how prices for the new Bush are now pegged at a top price of £24; though it’s difficult to track just when and how the prices got to that level, I looked up a play that I remember seeing less than three years ago at the old Bush, The Contingency Plan, when they were only £15.
It seemed to me that audiences were being penalised for the move to a more expensive venue, but also a bigger one (that means they’ve got more seats to fill and therefore more money to take). But one commentator pointed out that in reply that they had already reached £20 in the old Bush; £15 was the old Saturday matinee price.
£24 is a big leap, though, and a big leap particularly for the sort of untried, untested work that theatres like the Bush specialise in. While various commentators, from Simon Stephens to Mark Ravenhill, are noting an increasing conservatism in the tastes of theatrical audiences, it’s little wonder that they’re not going to try bolder fare, that they may or may not enjoy, when they’re being asked for such an investment to do so.
The ads for Mamma Mia!, and its unbelievable popularity, say it all: “You already know you’re going to love it!” Audiences want guaranteed good times — especially when they’re paying through the nose for it. The fringe should be playing a more adventurous role, to more adventurous audiences; but when, say, the Menier Chocolate Factory musicals now cost £33.50 a ticket, that’s not fringe anymore, but virtually West End levels. Admittedly, you get a much closer view (for the recent Pippin, you got a minute inspection of many of its actors’ exposed bodies).
The Menier is at one extreme of the price bracket, with subsidised off-West End houses like the Donmar and Almeida close on its heels with a top price of £32.50 and £32 respectively (though unlike the Menier, the house is actually graded so there are lower prices available in different areas of the theatre). On the other hand, the Finborough still manages to charge a top price of just £15 for some of the best shows in town, and looking through the fringe listings for Time Out, there are still plenty of theatres charging around £12.
Of course, the fringe often doesn’t pay its actors, so costs are lower overall, and if they did, fringe would become unaffordable for audiences to attend anymore. But the more prices go up, the fewer the chances that audience can take, too, in supporting it in the first place.