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Mark Shenton: With West End ticket prices rising, are cinema screenings the answer to improve access?

Ken Watanabe and Kelli O'Hara in The King and I. Photo: Matthew Murphy
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Accessibility is theatre’s greatest challenge. Since it happens at a specific time and place, it usually requires its audience to be there, in person, at the same time. And the audience is limited by the number of seats available to sell.

When demand is unusually high, this can turn some theatre events into very exclusive clubs. There are sometimes attempts to democratise the process, like the National’s lottery for tickets for Cate Blanchett’s debut there in Martin Crimp’s When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other in its smallest Dorfman auditorium. Even here, though, some people are more equal than others, with the NT’s premium and priority booking members being given some priority access.

Then there was Tom Hiddleston’s run last year as Hamlet, staged as a charity fundraiser for RADA at its student theatre. This was again a balloted event – even critics had to bid for the chance to see it. Yet, curiously, no fewer than three managed not just to win but also to score tickets for the very first night of the run in a theatre that seats just 183 people; maybe critics are just luckier than other people.

And, as The Stage’s recent ticketing survey showed, another barrier is escalating price: the average top price ticket to a West End musical is £153.54 (compared with £127 last year, an increase of 21%). That’s more expensive than the equivalent for an opera at English National Opera’s London Coliseum, where the best tickets are £125.

‘We pay our money, and we make our choices.’

Of course, top-price tickets are not the full story: The Stage’s survey also revealed that the average bottom price fell 9.7% this year, down to £19.31 – though the availability of these can be very limited (only four tickets are available for the cheapest price of £15.25 for Les Miserables on a Saturday night). Other cheap seats can only be accessed via lottery or day seat queues.

Last year the size of the West End audience exceeded 15 million visitors for the first time. Commercial theatre is a supply-and-demand business – and as long as the demand continues to be high, there will be little pressure for a ceiling on what West End producers and theatre owners will seek to earn from them.

But there remains a danger the West End becomes a premium product and that ‘regular’ audiences are priced out. That they simply seek alternatives, or change their habits. Yes, they could sit in the cheap(er) seats, but an alternative is just to go less often. We pay our money, and we make our choices. But the bigger issue is around whether potential audiences even know those choices are available to them: as long as a perception exists that theatregoing is very expensive, many will simply never go.

The NT’s Travelex-sponsored season, introduced by Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr when they took over the National in 2004, launched – as ticketing guru Richard Howle recently wrote – a revolution in discounted tickets across Theatreland.

But it was another Hytner/Starr initiative that may have had an even bigger impact and legacy: giving global audiences access to the very best seats in the house via NT Live. It has been a game changer in the way that it has offered worldwide audiences access not just to shows staged at the National, but also to venues such as the Donmar Warehouse (the sell-out Hiddleston Richard II) and recently Nottingham Playhouse (The Madness of George III with Mark Gatiss) and the Old Vic (All My Sons).

The Stage ticketing survey 2018: Top ticket prices up, cheapest get cheaper

Now there are multiple outlets offering similar things, with live broadcasts of Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare’s Globe shows via other channels, while Hampstead has streamed live broadcasts online. Not only does this expand each company’s own potential reach, but it also preserves a digital record of the production forever. And Broadway and the West End are catching on. Shows such as Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, An American in Paris and The King and I were filmed live for subsequent theatrical release, albeit initially for one night only. It was reported last week that The King and I (shown in cinemas on November 29) was the most successful theatre-related event to be shown in cinemas this year, with ticket sales expected to amount to $2.5 million (£1.96 million) globally.

There is a knock-on benefit, too: the film recording of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie could also act as a trailer, introducing New York audiences to this quintessentially British musical: I recently attended a screening in Manhattan attended by the show’s creative team as well as Jamie New and his mother Margaret, whose personal story inspired the musical.

Last week, it has been duly followed by two West End shows being recorded live: 42nd Street at Drury Lane and Kinky Boots at the Adelphi. Both are closing in January – but they will now live on forever and be available to audiences around the world, at a fraction of the cost of a top price ticket.

Mark Shenton is associate editor of The Stage.

Read his latest column every Wednesday and Friday at thestage.co.uk/columns/shenton

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