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Green Room: How can West End theatre be improved?

Ticket prices and the quality and quantity of amenities are key to attracting theatregoers, say the members of the Green Room. Photo: Shutterstock Ticket prices and the quality and quantity of amenities are key to attracting theatregoers, say the members of the Green Room. Photo: Shutterstock

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…​​​​​

Dickie Benfield is in his 40s and has worked in the West End, at the NT, the Globe, theatres around the country, as well as in TV

Abi Egerman is in her 20s and has appeared at the Old Vic, the National Theatre and regional rep

Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA-winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

Beryl Phoenix is in her 40s. She has played leading roles at the RSC, worked on new plays, and toured both nationally and internationally

Peter Quince is a 72-year-old actor working in theatre and television

Beryl Lowering ticket prices. Generally, I don’t go to West End shows, as I can’t afford to and can’t justify spending that amount.

Peter Prices. I really can only afford to go to the West End occasionally. And not just the seats – the bar prices are a rip-off too.

Dickie It comes back time and time again to pricing.

Abi Always – and also, stunt casting.

JonA friend of mine reported back on a piece of stunt casting the other day. The words “shockingly bad, even with low expectations” were used.

Abi So frustrating. Obviously it’s a bums-on-seats ploy, but seeing brilliantly experienced, trained performers losing out on jobs to people off Masterchef, or whatever, is really saddening. And nonsensical in so many ways.

Dickie I have this ‘soapbox’ rant that all actors should be able to get into any theatre for a tenner, 15 minutes before curtain up, on production of an Equity Card.

JonThat’s a great idea. Although box-office staff might not love it.

Peter For my taste, there are too many musicals and not enough plays.

Dickie And too many old plays clogging up the theatres.

Peter And comfort. Most West End theatres were built when the population was smaller. So they are very cramped. I always utter a sigh of relief as I sit down in the Olivier. Legroom.

JonAbsolutely. I’m 6ft 2in and my husband is 6ft 8in and it’s no fun squeezing into seats built for tiny Victorians.

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Peter If I were a woman, I’d be seriously pissed off about the loos. Pun intended.

Dickie Unisex loos would be a good idea. Some theatres already have them.

Albert The West End is not a charity. It’s not a right for people. It’s the commercial centre of theatre. It’s where people take a risk investing money to make money. The theatre that we should be so proud of and ensure it can lead the way is the subsidised sector, and more money should be ploughed back into that.

Abi Agreed regarding subsidised sector, but so many people in the wider population think that theatre is the West End. It should reflect the industry better.

Dickie I know it’s not a charity, but would they rather have empty seats? Word of mouth within the profession is a good thing for them. I’ve heard that they would rather have empty seats than discounted ones.

JonI don’t think making access more widespread counts as ‘charity’, does it? Just good business sense. Recognising the need to widen audiences and potential audiences.

Peter Albert’s right. If you’re a business and can fill your theatre charging high prices why would you charge less?

JonI don’t see that passing on unsold tickets to union members would do any harm. That strikes me as a nice little idea that isn’t really anything to do with the wider topic of pricing.

Dickie Also an incentive to join the union…

Albert What if the producers don’t like the union? Discounting means that people are then always on the hunt for cheap seats. Meanwhile, actors want better wages – so ticket prices aren’t coming down.

Peter I don’t think actors’ wages are a big factor in ticket prices.

Abi Surely from a business point of view, if the rates were that bit cheaper across the board, they would sell more tickets, the word would spread, then they would sell more tickets. I’m not even talking about on-the-day discounts here. Just the general pricing. My friend is in a play in the West End at the moment, and the tickets post-previews went up to as much as £167. They’re playing to half-empty houses every evening, and this is with a famous leading man.

Albert But, as soon as people know the seats can be bought cheaply, people will not buy the tickets at full price – not even Trump-voting Americans.

Dickie £167 is a disgrace.

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Albert The shows are budgeted on less than 100% so half-empty houses may not be as loss-making as you think. And, frankly, unless a show is an absolute sell-out, there are so many ways of getting tickets at less than full price.

Peter I usually go to West End shows when there are mates rates.

Beryl I know it costs to make shows but it is still elitist in terms of access for people on lower incomes.

JonYes, of course, there are reasons and explanations for a £167 ticket, but that doesn’t help the person who looks at £167 and decides theatre isn’t for them. I wouldn’t go at that price. But – other than pricing – any other thoughts?

Peter As above, too many musicals…

Albert More variety – more risk-taking.

Beryl Also, do any West End theatres or producers have a relationship/outreach programme with London youth community groups? Just a thought…

Abi So much of it is down to pricing, though. Just bringing everything down by a certain percentage so that more people can afford to go. So that theatre is available to people. I am not from London and my parents loved the arts but didn’t have any knowledge about the industry. They wouldn’t have even heard of any of the subsidised theatres. They wouldn’t know about schemes and prices that make theatre accessible. The West End was all they knew about.

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