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Andrzej Lukowski: Ticket prices show theatre’s class divide is widening

London's West End. Photo: Tom Eversley/Shutterstock London's West End. Photo: Tom Eversley/Shutterstock
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Let’s start with the good news from The Stage’s ticketing survey: it is genuinely terrific that the bottom ticket price for West End shows has fallen below £20 – almost a 10% drop on last year.

I was in New York earlier this month, and was yet again struck that theatre must be totally inaccessible to huge swathes of the populace, because cheap tickets barely exist.

At a time when even the subsidised National Theatre is sounding alarm bells regarding its capacity to offer £15 tickets in the future, it is great that affordable offers in the West End seem to becoming more of a thing, not less.

But we can’t just look at the bottom prices in isolation. The survey confirms my fears over how much top prices had risen in the past several years and how producers have been evasive about it – they use the essentially meaningless term “premium tickets” to obfuscate quite how expensive the costliest tickets are. This year’s research shows top prices are almost a fifth higher than last year, with the average top price now above £100 for the first time.

It’s very difficult to frame the changes in ticket prices as anything other than rampant capitalism

Needless to say, this is totally out of whack with inflation, and brings the West End alarmingly close to Broadway rates. Or, indeed, in excess of them: the top ticket price of £245 for The Lion King in the West End is now higher than the top price on Broadway, even if the bottom prices are far lower.

It’s very difficult to frame this as anything other than rampant capitalism. Society of London Theatre boss Julian Bird told The Stage that top prices “fluctuate year-on-year”. Hmm… I’m pretty sure they’re only fluctuating in a single direction.

The simultaneous rise of cheap and expensive tickets is also not a balanced trade-off. While not always the case, cheap West End seats are typically pretty bad – as in wouldn’t-even-get-built-today bad. Flogging them off to people skint enough to be willing to sit behind a pillar is still a pretty good deal for for producers; it’s not as if the skyrocketing price of the stalls is merely balanced out by making restricted view seats affordable.

But let’s not be too cynical here. Like the Brexit referendum vote, what The Stage ticketing survey shows us is a culture pulling in two different directions. Producers feel emboldened to charge more, but they also feel a greater responsibility to provide cheap tickets.

Clearly the two drives are interlinked: if hit shows were topping out at £40, I doubt producers would feel they needed to make a fuss about an affordable entry price. I honestly don’t think the British, with our culture of very diluted socialism, could swallow the full nightmare of Broadway pricing.

Nonetheless, stalls seats look increasingly like a luxury item that only the well off can possibly afford, and that’s a serious shame. In an industry that genuinely claims to care about social mobility, the class divide is getting bigger than ever when it comes to where you sit.

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