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Mark Shenton: The gripes, bugbears and pet peeves of the regular theatregoer

Subsidised venues including the National Theatre are less reliant on public funding than ever, Arts Council England data shows. Photo: Catherine Gerbrands The National has reduced its press night ticket allowance to one. Photo: Catherine Gerbrands
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As someone who goes to the theatre partly for a living, but mainly for a passion, I am extremely privileged and indeed lucky: who else goes to work this willingly? If I wasn’t being paid to do this, I’d have to pay to go to see the theatre I do – and my theatre habit (and/or addiction) would be, frankly, unsustainable.

Last month alone I saw 29 shows – 13 in London, 11 in New York, and five around the UK: Watford, Bromley, Manchester, Colchester and Cardiff. Not, I hasten to add, that I was necessarily reviewing them all; once or twice, it was purely for pleasure. And that pleasure has to be paid for in hard cash – just like a regular customer.

No wonder that I was affronted when one of those latter performances was severely disrupted by the constant clicking of a camera shutter. It was a two-night run at New York City Center of a staged concert version of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, featuring two of my favourite Broadway performers, Kelli O’Hara and Victoria Clark. When I found the house manager afterwards to protest – who was easy to find as she was surrounded by many other equally aggrieved patrons – she said it was caused by a photographer from the New York Times taking pictures without a muffler, and she had been fully aware of it.

But she did nothing about it. The offending photographer should have been removed immediately, regardless of whatever their professional duties were. I subsequently wrote to the venue’s president, managing director and communications and marketing directors, as well as the arts desk of the New York Times and the photographer whose name I saw captioned in the picture that accompanied the review, but no one has had the courtesy to reply.

Never mind that an apparently professional photographer came to a job ill-equipped to fulfil it at a public performance. The failure is first and foremost one of poor house management, and a venue that seems to value an archival picture in the so-called ‘paper of record’ above the enjoyment and respect of its paying patrons.

The same thing happened to me at the Barbican Centre, London, in 2012, when an amateur photographer – who turned out to be none other than Bianca Jagger – took flash photography throughout a performance of Einstein on the Beach. I bawled her out after the performance (without knowing who she was), and after I wrote about it in my column in The Stage, it ended up making front page news. Again, the first failure was the venue’s unwillingness to police this properly, not the stupidity of an entitled celebrity and friend of the director. The latter publicly tweeted his support of her when the negative publicity unfolded; I wonder if he would have been quite so forgiving of an ordinary member of the public who had disrupted his show in this way?

I had to leave a recent performance of Our House at the tiny fringe Union Theatre in London after an altercation with a woman sitting in front of me who was taking pictures on her mobile. She refused to stop, telling me that it was her kid brother in the show and if I’d wiped his arse as often as she had, I could take pictures, too.

It’s tough sometimes being the person who single-handedly tries to police an audience’s behaviour, and it seems like I’m fighting an increasingly futile, losing battle.

Meanwhile, the West End is becoming an increasingly expensive place to see poorer shows. Even Howard Panter, who has just stepped down from the chief executive role of Ambassador Theatre Group, the UK’s largest theatre chain, has admitted as much. He said as of his new plans to develop an artistic policy at the Trafalgar Studios that he is taking on instead: “There’s quality at ATG of course, but it’s very mainstream and as the corporate giant becomes so big, you can’t always get the quality you want, where you want it. We want to develop a particular audience, the same kind of audience that would go to the National Theatre.”

Director Jamie Lloyd recently condemned West End ticket pricing as “corrupt”, accusing some producers of exploiting “the profile of actors in a show by charging tickets that are soaring way past the £100 mark”. Presumably he exempted himself from this, as his own production of Doctor Faustus, starring the high-profile Kit Harington, charged £100 for premium price tickets that included a hospitality snacks and drink pack.

I’m glad Panter and Lloyd are picking up the baton to agitate for change. Commentators like me often feel as though we’re lone voices shouting in the wilderness. And even there, we’re finding our territory being challenged, as venues such as the National throw down the gauntlet – without consultation or notice – to cancel the traditional privileges of pairs of tickets to major press nights, reducing it to one. Though the National plausibly argued that it was an effort to widen the demographic of those who they were able to invite to press nights, it was interpreted by some as a rebuke to critics who’d not liked all of Rufus Norris’ choices. Pairs of tickets are, of course, a privilege and not a right – but are the naysayers being punished?

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