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Lyn Gardner: Theatres won’t grow new audiences if they stick young people in the cheap seats

Abraham Popoola in Julius Caesar. Photo: Manuel Harlan Audiences at the Bridge Theatre’s promenade-style Julius Caesar were in the thick of the action, but in other productions discounted seats that come with restricted views could be a turn off. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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I loved Nicholas Hytner’s Julius Caesar at London’s Bridge Theatre, and one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much was because standing tickets allow you to be right in the thick of the action. It’s a rare example – along with Shakespeare’s Globe – where the less you pay for your ticket, the better your view and experience.

There was one long scene in Julius Caesar where I could have stretched out my hand and touched Ben Whishaw’s Brutus and Michelle Fairley’s Cassius. Of course, there is a price to be paid in aching backs and legs, and it’s not ideal for the heavily pregnant, the disabled or elderly. You have to be prepared to get in the thick of things.

But for most of us, the experience is so visceral and immediate that I can’t imagine why anyone would want to pay £95 to sit down. One of the many reasons I like promenade-style shows is that they introduce some democracy into the theatre.

In the West End, where most theatres were built in an era of strict social stratification, it is still the case that the more you pay, the better your seat. But promenade theatre smashes that stratification and rewards both engagement and a willingness to take part in a way that being slumped in a seat does not.

The introduction of premium seats ensures that those with money can snore their way through sold-out shows while those who really want to be there watch from the gods

The introduction of premium seats ensures that those with money can snore their way through sold-out shows while those who really want to be there either fail to secure a ticket at a reasonable price or watch from the gods in seats that detract from the viewing experience. Whatever some may claim, many West End theatres are simply not fit for purpose in the 21st century: the creaky old buildings define the kind of work and acting that they can house.

An engaged audience, whether it’s standing in the pit or sitting in the stalls or circle, carries energy to the furthest corners of an auditorium. It makes a contribution.

One of the pleasures of seeing a show at Theatre Royal Stratford East is the way the audience is often in dialogue with the stage. Audience members may be noisy, they may even talk, but, if they do, it’s about the show. In Nottingham recently to see Beth Steel’s terrific Wonderland, it was evident from the audience reactions that this was a play speaking directly to them. Sometimes they were vocal about it, particularly when Margaret Thatcher’s voice was heard.

Wonderland review at Nottingham Playhouse – ‘powerful and pertinent’

I often wonder whether there is a connection between rising ticket prices – particularly in the West End, where tickets can cost more than a weekend in Spain – and increasing complaints about other audience members’ behaviour.

The more theatre tickets are out of reach of ordinary people on average household budgets, the more those who have purchased at top whack want to jealously guard the quality of their experience. But a theatre is not a church; the ancient Greeks didn’t experience theatre in reverent silence.

As a critic, I am now lucky enough to sit in the best seats, but well into my 20s I saw so many shows from the gods that I was well acquainted with the bald spots of many of our leading thespians. Most recently, I saw Andrew Scott’s Hamlet from the cheap seats and it didn’t affect my pleasure in the slightest. A terrific show makes you forget discomfort, whether it stems from a broken heart or a numbed bum.

But a great deal of theatre is not that good. And you remain acutely aware of your discomfort when occupying a less-than-good seat in a playhouse designed for a very different kind of production.

It feels woefully deficient to young audiences brought up consuming film and television series on the intimacy of their laptops. Over recent years I’ve noticed my theatre-loving students becoming increasingly resistant to shows that fail in offering those in the cheap seats a quality experience.

It’s why it strikes me as insane that young theatregoers often find themselves sitting in the worst seats in the house. It’s good that theatres sell cheaper seats to students, or offer under-served communities the chance to access theatre, but not so good if it puts people off seeing theatre for life.

If groups of youngsters behave poorly in the theatre it may be less to do with not knowing the rules and more with the fact that they are sitting in seats with restricted views, poor sight lines and are so far away from the action that it could be happening on Mars.

It’s all very well saying that the older among us grew up experiencing theatre in such a fashion and it didn’t put us off it. But when I was growing up in the 1970s there wasn’t the choice of entertainment at the press of a button that younger people have today. I understand that producers and theatres want to get the best possible return on every seat they sell today, but it’s short-sighted if in the process they pay such scant regard to the audiences of tomorrow.

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