The full price range for the West End arrival of The Book of Mormon next February at the West End’s Prince of Wales Theatre is yet to be revealed, but on Broadway the top premium price is now $477 (or £300.55) a ticket. The hyper-inflation of theatre tickets hasn’t quite reached those epic proportions over here just yet.
But a premium ticket for Mamma Mia!, for instance, which moves to the Novello from this Thursday, will now set you back £95; and though that isn’t, of course, the only price available, with a ‘regular’ top price of £67.50 on offer for a Saturday night, we can’t be far off the days when we happily crash through the £70 barrier over here, just as the $100 ticket price was long breached on Broadway and is now happily nudging $150 there (top regular price on Jersey Boys there is $147, with premiums up to $297).
The trouble is that those headline prices, however, create a dangerous perception for some that that is all that is available; while for those in the know, it is actually a fact that those prices need hardly ever be paid and rampant discounting is invariably available, depending on how flexible you are about when you want to go.
In the process, the West End has become simultaneously a high-end luxury Harvey Nicks and a free-for-all Primark — the labels are there, but sometimes you have to rummage in the overcrowded racks for them.
More damagingly, though, is the fact that audiences of the future are being discouraged, possibly fatally, from dipping their toes into theatregoing. SOLT has been trying to counteract this perception by regularly providing discount promotions, though these only tend to add to the flurry of contradictory promotions already out there (all of which are brilliantly collated into one place by Theatremonkey.)
What’s needed, of course, are more sustained and clear offerings. The National’s annual Travelex season, in which some 115,000 tickets are offered for just £12, has been going strong ever since Nick Hytner took over the National Theatre in 2003; and as he said in a public platform interview at the time, “I think I got obsessed by tickets at knock-down prices almost from the moment I was asked to do the job. And we started to think about how to do it almost a year before I started. It was mainly a feeling that ticket prices in real terms have gone up a hell of a lot since 1963 when the National was started and 1976 when we moved here. It didn’t seem to be rocket science to attribute what felt to us like a narrowing of the audience base to increased ticket prices. So it felt worth a try to see what would happen if we made a dramatic intervention into ticket prices.”
It has paid off in every sense and become a key part of the Hytner’s NT strategy. But it has also had a useful wider impact on the theatrical ecology, with many other theatres embracing its philosophy. When Michael Grandage announced his West End residency at the Coward Theatre that begins in December, the biggest headline — after the casting of the likes of Judi Dench, Daniel Radcliffe, Jude Law, Sheridan Smith and David Walliams across the season — was that you could see them for just £10 each: over 200 tickets were made available for every performance at that price, with over 100,000 tickets at this price across the entire season.
And yesterday the Donmar Warehouse, his former theatrical home, also announced a new scheme to widen access, and not just in financial terms but also in terms of availability, by announcing a new £10 ticket scheme, called Barclays Front Row, that will see 40 seats per performance across the front row of both the stalls and circle offered at that price. But instead of simply allowing them to be snapped up by early bookers, the promotion has another key strand: they will only be released for sale on the Monday two weeks before the performance week starts.
As Donmar artistic director Josie Rourke commmented, “We’re hoping to break through the perception that you ‘can’t get a ticket’ for our 250 seat theatre and introduce new audiences by offering exciting close-up seats at a brilliant price.” Of course, the Donmar is already heavily subsidised and well-placed to secure this sort of headline sponsorship from Barclays (who’ve saved a bob or two, in every sense, after former chief exec Bob Diamond didn’t take all of his bonus when he left). But it has still required an effort of will to make it happen, and not simply shrug and say, ‘We can sell those 251 seats many times over as it is, so why bother?”
At the same time, I wonder what impact this kind of initiative might have on the unsubsidised (and largely unsalaried) fringe? Just the other day I saw Curtains at the Landor Theatre in Clapham, where tickets cost £20. Full price tickets at the Finborough for the current run of Cornelius have ranged from £14-£16, depending on when in the run you see it, while for the next show run from £16-£18.