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Theatrical souvenirs, departing dancers and West End notes

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The theatrical souvenir industry

What do you routinely take away from a night at the theatre, apart from a ticket stub that reminds you how much you paid, and hopefully a memory that may be priceless?

Chances are you’ll also take home a programme (though with the price of these increasing all the time – and hitting a staggering £5 at the current West End Macbeth at Trafalgar Studios – I am being told that there’s now more price resistance, and it’s becoming another item you can simply do without).

If you go to musicals, however, you may be faced with souvenir stands that also offer mugs and badges, dolls and even possibly jewellery, not to mention the inevitable souvenir brochure. There may, also of course, be a cast album, and ushers hawking some of these in the aisles. So it is sometimes impossible to avoid it all.

I’ve not heard a monetary value attached to all of this stuff, though it must be profitable, given the efforts made to sell it and extra staff deployed to look after doing so. The producer of the show typically shares these extra revenue sources with the theatre owner (though the owners alone collect the money on the theatre programmes that the producers supply all the information for, as well of course as the entirety of the bar sales whose customers the producer has brought to the theatre).

I’m thinking of this because according to a feature in The Observer over the weekend, galleries and museums in Britain are taking around £100m in their gift shops every year now. According to John
Stachiewicz, chairman of the Association for Cultural Enterprises, “Cuts in the cultural sector have been deep since the recession hit and institutions have quite simply had to rise to the challenge. One of the ways we have witnessed the sector doing this is by creating unique and relevant products to sell to visitors.”

So souvenirs are big business. A few years ago, Forbidden Broadway hilariously spoofed Cameron Mackintosh’s hawking of souvenirs at his shows with a song called “My Souvenir Things”, set to The Sound of Music’s ‘My Favourite Things’. They’re obviously favourite things in museums and galleries as well as theatres nowadays. Never mind the cultural experience of what you visit to them to see. It’s what you go home with that seems to matter almost as much.

Midnight Express leaves without its lead dancer

A few weeks ago I wrote about the frustration that Antonio Pappano, music director at Covent Garden, had vented publicly about opera stars who fail to fulfill their contractual duties there, bowing out at the last minute owing to illness brought upon, he suggested, by being over-committed. As he commented, “A lot of people are getting sicker and sicker. It’s a problem. There’s so much travelling involved with singer. People are overbooked, overcommitted, there are too many new things, the stress on them and the amount of PR.”

The dance world, it seems, is similarly sometimes precarious. Last week the unpredictable Sergei Polunin once again behaved unpredictably, pulling out of Peter Schaufuss’s revival of Midnight Express without warning or explanation. And though there may be special circumstances with someone like Polunin, The Guardian’s Judith Mackrell wrote last week,

Ballet casting is more precarious than most because dancers often have to pull out of a show because of last-minute injury. Yet this brouhaha over Polunin’s departure is surely symptomatic of a ballet culture that’s becoming increasingly dominated by celebrity. As more and more star performers jet between companies, garnering inflated fees, and as ticket sales are driven by big names, it can sometime feel as though the works themselves are secondary.

Notes from around the West End

Got to love those Mormons! No, not The Book of Mormon, but the real ones: not only have they place ads inside the programme for the show, but people arriving to see the show by tube will find that at Piccadilly Circus, the nearest station to the Prince of Wales Theatre, the walls of the tunnels are lined with ads for the Mormons, too. Talk about targeting your audience! The saturation advertising for The Book of Mormon is now being matched by a push for the Mormons themselves.

• David Ian, co-producer of the Olivier–nominated musical The Bodyguard, is also co-producer of something else currently appearing on the London stage: his 13-year-old daughter Emily Lane is currently one of the three young actresses rotating in the role of Susan Skinner in Before the Party at the Almeida Theatre. When I saw the proud dad, his wife and son at the first night of Before the Party, I couldn’t resist pointing out that this wasn’t the only show in town where one of the lead roles is being rotated: it also seems to happen at The Bodyguard, where star Heather Headley is often covered by Gloria Onitri.

• A longstanding gripe for me at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue has been to do with the rake of the stalls. Back in 2007, I wrote when I went to the first night of a revival of Glengarry Glen Ross,

I didn’t get to see much of the first act, let alone second act, thanks to the fact that somehow the theatrical fourth wall – which is, of course, usually invisible once the curtain goes up – had been specially reinstated just for me and my guest, apparently, five inches in front of our faces. We were seated in what should have been prime seats on the centre aisle, Row L11-12. But thanks to the fact that the seats, at this point, are not offset against those in the row in front of them, and are on a very shallow rake, you only need a person of slightly above average height and/or width to sit in front of you to seriously compromise the view.

So it was a relief when I caught the transfer of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time last week to find that the seats in the stalls have, at long last, been re-raked and slightly elevated. It’s a fairly rudimentary change with the rows re-sited on blocks, and little ledges attached to the seats in front so that you now have somewhere to put your legs in case they end up dangling in the air (as they do in some of the seats, for instance, at Trafalgar Studios 2).

But it’s definitely a welcome change; now we can actually see all of the stage, not whatever sliver of it the person in front lets you see in the gaps inbetween the seats. And I’d far rather be higher off to the floor than virtually on it, as seats in many West End theatres virtually seem to want to hug the carpet.

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