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Richard Jordan: Regional theatre risks pricing out punters at the worst time

The Lion King at the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, in 2014. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
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Ask theatre devotees what first sparked their love of the stage, and many will answer that it was a show at their local touring theatre.

These venues around the country are vital as entry points for millions into the theatre. It is also vital they remain open and welcoming, so such discoveries continue to be made.

In Brexit Britain, theatre is one arena that brings us all together. It can speak out and deal with urgent and relevant issues. It can also provide a vital outlet for release, an opportunity for escapism, for galvanising a community, and – let’s not forget – it is great entertainment.

However, I am increasingly worried that theatre is becoming elitist and inaccessible to many, especially in our regional towns and cities, as ticket prices increase rapidly at a time when the UK faces further economic challenges.

At many of our country’s regional receiving theatres, the price of a ticket to see a large-scale touring musical is bordering on the level of the West End. Recently, top ticket prices for the tours of both Mary Poppins and The Lion King hit £60 at some theatres.

While those venues offer cheaper tickets too, a large proportion of seats are priced at this top level. It risks setting a precedent for more shows to follow and may prevent theatregoers paying to see other shows in the season.

These branded musical productions are a coup for any regional theatre to attract. Their arrival in a town or city becomes a real event and attracts strong media coverage. But with a family of four possibly paying £240 on tickets alone, there’s a question about the longer-term effect upon the theatres themselves and their seasons.

Regional touring theatres enjoy strong local support, many with large and active ‘friends of the theatre’ schemes. A number of these venues benefit from loyal audiences booking in advance shortly after the season brochure hits the doormat, often for all their weekly productions.

The moment regional theatre audiences become marginalised, or see it as a dispensable activity, we will hit major problems for its future

No touring theatre can present a hit musical every week and a season needs a good mix of shows. But what was once a weekly night at the theatre for some audience regulars may now become monthly as money gets tighter and ticket prices higher. It may also result in them sticking to the familiar titles.

As ticket prices increase, audiences may revise their judgements of what represents good value in a regional theatre’s season line-up. To this end, a show with five famous names attached may resonate more than the show with only two.

A large cast may suggest more money has been spent on a show over one with a smaller cast, no matter the quality. This can change audience habits, damaging the regional touring economy and making many producers steadily more risk-adverse, especially when it comes to touring newer work over revivals. Meanwhile, if tickets are expensive for one headline production, audiences may decide to skip other shows in the season to save up for the glitzy one.

Unlike a sit-down West End production, many large-scale musicals on the road have been built as touring shows. They are not necessarily carrying the same canopy names, although now they are potentially charging as much. Regional audiences might see, for example, The Lion King playing their local theatre as an ‘event’, but they are also paying top dollar for the experience and convenience of it playing at their home venue.

Will these regional theatres be able to maintain this ‘event status’ and rising ticket prices? Does the show achieve the same momentum when it plays a repeat engagement at the same theatre?

With top ticket prices becoming almost comparable to the West End for certain touring shows, a regional audience might even start to consider a trip to London instead. They could secure an advance-purchase train or coach ticket for a day out in the capital and discounted tickets to a headline West End musical, all for not much more money than one top-price ticket to their local theatre. That suddenly sounds a much fuller and better value ‘event’ than a drive to the local touring theatre for the evening.

Crucially, there is also the issue of public perception, especially within regional communities who frequently talk to each other. Often discussions latch on to the top price of a theatre ticket and this can – rightly or wrongly – lead to a negative perception of ‘how expensive theatre is’.

The moment regional theatre audiences become marginalised, or see it as a dispensable activity, we will hit major problems for its future.

I recognise that these large-scale touring musicals have a high weekly break figure to cover their running costs. However, I also think we are at a threshold of issues around affordability and value at a time when the role of regional theatre across communities – and society in general – has never been more important.

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