Editor’s View: Does regional downturn show ticket prices have reached a tipping point?
For a few years, regional theatre leaders have warned that things are getting tougher outside of London. In the subsidised sector, local authority cuts have not so much been biting as chewing off limbs, and while Arts Council England has made a conscious effort to redirect some extra funds outside the capital, the overall pot has not been keeping pace with inflation.
Meanwhile, in the commercial sector, there are other problems. Ambassador Theatre Group, the biggest venue operator outside of London, has seemingly been going through a period of retrenchment and flux. This has had knock-on effects for producers taking tours to their venues. Certainly, it appears to be getting tougher on the road for commercial producers – especially for what you might politely describe as the second rung of touring shows. Add to this the general air of uncertainty around Brexit and ebbing consumer confidence, and it’s no wonder times are hard.
These conditions have contributed to a string of shows collapsing either before they have got off the ground, or mid-tour. Thoroughly Modern Millie is the latest, but it follows Heaven on Earth, Wonderland and Shout! the Musical, among others.
To counteract these difficulties, many regional theatres have been impressively entrepreneurial, but part of that strategy has often involved upping prices. Until now, that didn’t look to have been having a negative effect on audiences. But maybe – with the dip in both box office and audiences revealed in the latest figures from UK Theatre – we’ve now hit the ceiling of what people are willing to pay.
Interestingly, the West End appears to be insulated from the effects of all this. For well over a decade, ticket prices have been heading ever upwards, but so have audience numbers.
For much of that period, the wider economy was a lot stronger than it is now, but even the current malaise does not – so far – appear to have had a negative effect in Theatreland.
However, unlike most regional theatres, London has a large overseas audience. And, for them, the West End has not been getting more expensive, it has been getting cheaper thanks to the plummeting value of the pound.
Outside London, theatres rely far more heavily on their local audiences and it’s crucial those audiences are nurtured and cherished, and don’t feel they are being ripped off. Once they have lost the habit of theatregoing, they can be very hard to lure back.