The “murky world” of London theatre has come under scrutiny in the House of Lords, with peers raising concerns about accessibility and the rising cost of ticket prices in the West End.
At a debate on London theatre earlier this month, the government was called on to step in and impose regulations on the “excesses of the theatre world”.
Liberal Democrat peer Patrick Boyle started the debate, in which he asked the government what “assessment they have made of the operation of the theatre market in London” and what steps it had taken to “ensure theatre is accessible to as wide an audience as possible”.
He used his speech to demand greater transparency from the theatre industry about where money from ticket sales went.
Research by The Stage found that the most expensive seats in the West End increased in price by nearly 20% between 2017 and 2018 and now average more than £100.
“It is getting more and more difficult for the average theatregoer to afford an evening in the West End,” Boyle said. “Once you start delving into the murky world of London theatre production you find yourself with a hundred different questions that are never satisfactorily answered.”
He said the way shows were costed was “very complicated” and claimed “some say it is in the interest of the theatre world to keep it complicated”.
He also said there should be more transparency about how much it cost to put on productions.
“If you care about the international reputation of London theatre or you are concerned that too much of your precious ticket money is ending up in the hands of the wrong people, you will agree that is is the government’s job to step in and impose regulations on the excesses of the theatre world,” he said.
Boyle told The Stage that he could not see any other way to stop the rise in ticket prices.
“The whole thing is greed, or opportunism. It will get more and more expensive and London theatre, which should be the mecca of the theatre world, will become too expensive,” he said, adding that the prices of seats should reflect the costs of putting on a particular show.
Fellow Liberal Democrat peer Don Foster agreed that ticket prices were too high and said West End theatres needed to be careful they “do not kill the goose that is currently laying their golden egg with ever-increasing ticket prices”.
‘The whole thing is greed, or opportunism. It will get more and more expensive and London theatre, which should be the mecca of the theatre world, will become too expensive’ – Lib Dem peer Patrick Boyle
He added that arts subjects were being “marginalised” in schools and warned that this would make schools “less inclined to engage with local theatres”.
Crossbench peer Nicholas Le Poer Trench agreed that high ticket prices were a “symptom of a wider problem of access”.
He raised concerns that only private schools were offering students experiences in the arts, and said this could lead the theatre industry to becoming a profession “dominated by the middle and upper classes”.
He also criticised drama school audition fees for “dissuading study at higher-education level” and said the English Baccalaureate “needs to be abolished”.
Responding, Conservative James Younger said commercial producers should not face intervention from the government. He added that the party took “very seriously” concerns that some of the prices in the West End “are kept artificially high due to anti-competitive practices”.
He said the Competition and Markets Authority would investigate any evidence of anti-competitive practices shared with it.
He disputed that the EBacc had resulted in a decline of arts subjects and said: “Since the EBacc was announced, the proportion of young people taking at least one arts GCSE has fluctuated across the years but it has remained broadly stable.”
The full House of Lords debate on the theatre market is available here.