The 2019 Oliviers was a slick and celebratory evening containing only welcome surprises, well marshalled by host Jason Manford.
I was delighted to see Sharon D Clarke, one of our greatest musical performers, and Patsy Ferran, one of our most exciting young stars, triumph in the best actress categories against high-profile opposition.
But the biggest surprise came in the speech by Society of London Theatre president Kenny Wax that pre-empted the main event. In it, he called on his colleagues to take “a good, hard look” at West End ticket prices.
We all know that tickets have become more expensive, but this is the first time I can recall a senior figure from within the West End community acknowledging it publicly – and at the West End’s flagship event no less. I suspect there will be some who will not thank him for it. But it needed to be said.
I hope Wax’s intervention will allow an open and constructive conversation to be had about ticket pricing – one that considers the range of factors at play. As audience members, we all want tickets to be cheaper, but commercial theatre exists – in part – to make money. To attract investors (crucial to enabling work) it needs to at least offer the hope of making a profit. And theatre is expensive to produce – West End theatres are expensive to run and shows often have large casts and crews who need to be paid, and paid fairly.
How can this welcome push for lower ticket prices sit alongside the no less urgent need to think about how certain parts of the workforce are currently remunerated? While Wax was calling for lower ticket prices, designers were speaking out about the frankly ludicrous hours that some of them have to work. Anyone reading The Stage regularly will know that they are not alone in this complaint.
All these people are right: we need lower ticket prices to attract a broad range of audiences; we need to pay people better wages (and treat them better) to attract and maintain a diverse workforce. But these two issues are in seeming conflict – how do we square this circle? Plus, we need to ensure that the secondary ticketing market can’t just tout these new lower-priced tickets at inflated rates.
We will need new ideas – maybe even radical ones. It’s not as simple as just saying ‘we need cheaper tickets’ – theatre needs to create new models to allow ticket prices to be lowered, while at the same time potentially raising wage bills. This will not be easy.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith