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Richard Jordan: As prices soar, is this generation destroying commercial theatre?

The cast of The Inheritance at the Noel Coward Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

At the turn of the century, when Madonna opened in the play Up for Grabs at the Wyndham’s Theatre, a front stalls ticket cost £37.50 – a new record at the time for drama tickets in the West End.

Today, that same seat at the Wyndham’s Theatre to see The Price, opening in February [1], will set you back £69.75, with premium stalls seats also available at £99.75 and £127.75. That’s an enormous leap, reflecting the increased cost of theatregoing.

Next week The Inheritance shall play its final West End performance. Matthew Lopez’ two-parter has received universal praise and already won the Evening Standard award for best play ahead of undoubtedly a best new play nomination at the Oliviers.

In her five-star review of the West End production, Evening Standard critic Fiona Mountford went so far as to say: “Here is the play of this year, last year and possibly next year.”

With a slew of sensational reviews and a major award behind it, this would once have guaranteed a sell-out run and a returns line around the block. Instead, The Inheritance [2] has frequently appeared on ticketing discount sites, with the likelihood that the production will not recoup its limited West End season.

This should be seen as a seismic and concerning shift for the West End. It reflects the fact that critics no longer wield the same power they once did, but also that word-of-mouth isn’t able to provide enough momentum to generate sold-out houses. That’s despite the production starring Vanessa Redgrave in the second part and transferring from a previous sell-out run at the Young Vic, where it had also gained rave reviews.

The Inheritance review at Young Vic, London – ‘ambitious, moving and compelling’ [2]

With front stalls tickets at the Noel Coward Theatre, its West End home, costing £75 and premium seats at £125 – even with a discount if you book to see both parts – it’s still a significant outlay for an audience to commit to.

It may also reflect a growing divide between subsidised and West End theatre. The Inheritance suggests that a sell-out run at a leading subsidised venue no longer translates into a sell-out run in the commercial West End. A top-price ticket at the Young Vic is considerably lower than its West End counterparts, but with a greater growing price divide, an audience who may have once seen the play at the Young Vic, and then gone again to see it in the West End, are perhaps becoming less inclined to do so.

It is a fallacy to believe that commercial theatre can sustain this level of increased ticket pricing long-term

Producers are faced with the continuing challenges of a limited run. Many stars want to bookend a stage appearance between movies for only 12 to 16 weeks and the days of plays recasting and playing longer runs is mostly a thing of the past. This is a problem for producers, who need to recoup the production costs in this limited time frame, and can ultimately lead to higher ticket prices.

Of course, productions will be quick to boast that they also offer cheaper seats, although often reduced in number, and inevitably in poor locations around the auditorium. Many theatres have also combatted this with offering lotteries and day seats for a lucky few at knock-down prices in good locations.

But as Andrzej Lukowski highlighted in his column last year, rising ticket prices show that theatre’s class divide is widening.

Andrzej Lukowski: Ticket prices show theatre’s class divide is widening [3]

This was evident at the London Palladium’s production of Snow White [4]. In 2017, tickets to see Dick Whittington [5] from the back row of the Palladium’s Royal Circle cost £39.50. This year, those same seats have leapt to £77.50, with the majority of cheaper seats now in the back stalls and Grand Circle. The production has offered various discounts for families and also covered booking fees, but much of the stalls and dress-circle tickets are priced between £64.50 and £89.50, with premium seats at up to £169.50.

Such shows serve as vital entry points for introducing and developing new theatre audiences – but it mostly means that only parents with deep pockets can afford such a trip.

Something has to give here, whether that’s reducing theatre rental, advertising and general production costs, offering further enhanced industry tax breaks or greater subsidy directed towards ticket prices. But it is a fallacy to believe that commercial theatre can sustain this level of increased ticket pricing long-term, especially in these times of great economic uncertainty.

There is also little hope for building theatre investment from increasingly diminished potential returns, or to create a consistent theatregoing habit among new audiences.

Even more concerning is the growth in public perception, driven by the escalating commercial ticket prices, that the West End is a luxury designer attraction. One knock-on effect is that audiences will not take a chance on new work without a canopy star.

If today’s industry does not address this properly, it risks the legacy of being the generation that destroyed the commercial theatre. Ticket prices show just how divided the UK has become between the haves and the have nots, at a time when the industry is attempting to propel itself as being a leader in diversity, accessibility and inclusion.