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The price and value of theatre tickets

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We all know that the price and value of goods and services are very different things indeed. Price is only ever meaningful in the sense of being a guide to what someone hopes to make from selling one or the other, and what someone else may be willing to pay.

And though there are official ‘rack’ rates for tickets to everything from flights and hotel rooms to theatre tickets, these fluctuate nowadays wildly according to supply and demand. But the value we might individually put on seeing something, though inevitably pegged to the price we may have paid, is something else again.

Indeed, theatres are wholeheartedly embracing the airline model of variable pricing at both ends of the market. On the one hand, there are sometimes countless (and confusing) discount offers available for shows, though the hard slog of finding the best one is brilliantly done for you thanks to the efforts of Theatremonkey in consolidating them all in its show-by-show guide to what’s currently on offer.

On the other, virtually every West End show – winner or loser, though it obviously matters most to the biggest hits – now offers premium pricing, with choice seating marked off to be sold at a much higher price. If a show becomes a bona fide hit, like The Audience or The Book of Mormon, the sky’s the limit in terms both of price and also the number of seats that become thus designated.

For those two shows, ticket prices for so-called premium seats ballooned overnight to £125, while on Broadway The Book of Mormon regularly breaks its own house records at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre  But the management has not suddenly added extra rows – they’ve simply sold the existing seats at yet higher prices. In January, the show broke the house record for the 44th time, earning $1,833,431.90 for the week that ended January 6. Last week, the average ticket price for The Book of Mormon sold at $198.36 – given that the non-premium top price is $169, and the cheapest price for partial view orchestra and rear mezzanine seats is $149, that tells you how much of the inventory is being marked up to premium.

The producers argue, of course, that if people are willing to pay a higher price, that revenue should come to them, their investors and the participants of their royalty pool, not to the touts that lurk either on the streets outside or the highways and by-ways of the internet via the so-called secondary ticketing market.

But premium pricing hasn’t banished the touts; it’s just raised their game (and prices) in turn. Everyone is simply (trying to) take a larger slice of the same pie, since it is a fixed inventory in terms of available tickets that is being worked with. Until and unless live theatre shows can be cloned and play simultaneously in several theatres at once, that problem isn’t going to go away. (The NT Live initiative of showing live telecasts of performances, of course, offers an alternative version for audiences squeezed out of a live performance to see them, but it isn’t quite the same).

Those are issues of cost and availability – the old capitalist model of supply and demand. But an open thread posted on The Guardian website this week asking whether critics should know what a ticket costs made me also think about the (perceived) value of that ticket and the experience it buys you access to.

Of course, critics are in the lucky position of not having to pay for their tickets (and I’ve often said that my theatregoing habit, even addiction, would be unsustainable if I did!). The question was raised by Tom Sutcliffe’s comment in a column in The Independent, in which he pointed out:

My ticket for the first night of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory featured a row of zeros where the price would usually be. I suppose you might defend the practice as segregating the critic from the sordid question of value for money. But later I discovered that taking a family of four to the West End’s newest musical would range between £128 for the cheapest seats to a staggering £344 for decent ones. And then I thought of someone clicking “Buy Now” on the strength of one of the insouciantly over-generous reviews the show received. The price should be left on.

Actually, as this blog regularly makes abundantly clear, I’m constantly exercised by the price of theatre tickets, not because I usually have to pay them myself but because I’m concerned about the viability of the theatre’s future as they escalate ever skywards. I also, incidentally, have to provide a header column to my weekly Sunday Express column that lists the prices of that are being charged, expressed as a range from the lowest available to the most expensive, for which I routinely therefore now provide an indication of what the premium price is.

But as the responses to the Guardian’s open thread indicate, it’s a thorny issue about whether critics should take the price into account when reviewing the show. Are we basically a consumer guide and/or champion, or are we offering a deeper analysis?

One commentator Michael Goldfarb puts this conflict succinctly:

The problem is that too many critics seem to think think they are writing for some higher authority. Like the eager Oxbridge undergrads so many of them were, they are writing for the great tutor in the sky rather than writing for people who primarily want to know whether it’s worth shelling out 150 quid for a pair of tickets or not.

But as my FT colleague Ian Shuttleworth no less trenchantly replies,

Me, I’m writing for the great readership wherever they are who primarily want to know what a show is like, for whatever reasons. If they’re considering shelling out 150 quid for a pair of tickets, that’s their business; mine isn’t to advise them, it’s to inform them.

So we do offer a kind of consumer guide – but having informed the readers, they make up their own minds. And they may make their mind up based on other facts, like the price of the ticket, that hasn’t directly influenced us.

It also seems that some people want even more information from us. Running times (given with the reviews for The Stage) is one that comes up; another commentator Hardatwork, writes,

please also include info on the selection of ice creams at the interval, condition of the toilets, thickness of the programme, civility of staff, amount of knee-room in the stalls, proximity of theatre to buses, etc. In fact the only thing we’re not bothered about is what you thought of the show.

Again, I steer you Theatremonkey for a seat-by-seat guide to the best places to sit in each theatre. And follow my tweets for updates on the conditions of the toilets, like this one I recently posted about the state of the men’s stalls loo at the Duke of York’s.


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