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Mark Shenton: It’s all fair game for the West End’s profit merchants

London's West End. Photo: Alex Brenner
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I’ve previously written about Theatreland’s determined drive to maximise returns. Customers passing through a theatre’s doors are hit by extra charges from the moment they try to buy their tickets, when they are hit by a range of add-on booking and restoration fees, to the services they provide on arrival, in the interval and even on the way out the building.

The restoration fee might not, strictly speaking, be a revenue earner, since the intention is that it is ploughed straight back into the fabric and upkeep of the building. But in what other business is that cost passed on as add-on to the customer? You don’t pay a specific maintenance and upkeep fee to an airline to occupy a seat on-board their planes, or to a supermarket to shop there. The business absorbs the cost, pricing it into goods and services.

But at every other contact point with the customer in the theatre, there seems to be another opportunity to upsell something. Whether that’s a theatre programme – anything from £4 to £10 – to provide information that people can probably just get on the show’s website now, an overpriced interval ice cream or a drink, it’s all fair game for the West End’s profit merchants. Of course, some of this is simply justified as customer ‘service’ and convenience – giving audiences what they want.

But no theatre chain has pursued this policy more vigorously than ATG, which for the past four years has offered an ‘at seat’ sales service called Ordertorium, not unlike duty free on aeroplanes. Earlier this week it issued a press statement to promote and defend it. It explained:

Drinks and snacks have been available at bars in theatres for many decades. Our customers have long expressed concern about their ability to access bars with enough ease both before the performance and during the interval. Four years ago, ATG decided to make it easier for customers to obtain drinks, snacks and programmes at these times and developed the Ordertorium service. This allows them to have these items delivered to them by front-of-house staff at their seats before the performance or during the interval, and never at any other time. It is an extension of our existing provision of drinks and snacks, but to more people, including those who find it more difficult to reach the bar. This has proved very popular with theatregoers and over the four-year period it has been in use at thousands of performances. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, focusing on the improvement in access.

It’s certainly true that the interval crush is lessened. But promoting more people to eat and drink at their seats instead of in the bars has the paradoxical effect of turning the theatre into one huge picnic area.

Imelda Staunton took a well-publicised stand against this endless requirement for people to snack during performances that led to the Pinter Theatre – an ATG house – to not allow audiences to bring food into the auditorium during the current run there of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ATG addressed this in its statement by saying, “ATG always respects the nature of each performance and works with producers to ensure audiences are considerate to other theatregoers and the performers, appreciative of the fact that any noise can be a distraction for both.”

But when a couple of theatregoers seated behind me at ATG’s Duke of York’s munched their way through a massive plastic tub of popcorn during The Glass Menagerie, I was powerless to complain as the theatre had itself sold them the item. It is baffling to me that theatregoers might want to eat popcorn in the first place while watching a play, and they probably wouldn’t have even thought of it had the theatre not made it available. On the other hand, am I just being elitist? Shouldn’t people be free to eat whatever they want, and shouldn’t the theatre provide that service to let them do so?

The problem is that, in return for the £5 they’ve made by selling the tub of popcorn, they’ve potentially disrupted the play that people have each spent £65 or more to see for many, many more people. That seems to me to be not just a false economy, but palpably unfair.

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