“I’m sorry. How much?” I asked, assuming I must have misheard, but no. £20 for two normal sized, in no way remarkable (plastic) glasses of red wine. I winced inwardly – and probably outwardly too.
This familiar exchange took place in a bar at a West End theatre owned by the ATG group. At another theatre owned by the same group, I once paid over £7 for a single bottle of beer.
Now you could argue it’s not worth complaining about the cost of a couple of wines when the West End has always had a reputation for wallet-gouging prices. Rocketing cost of living is an issue in every area of London life – have you seen how much a stalls seat goes for these days? – and there are clearly bigger battles to be fought.
But I would counter that it matters, because it sends a signal about who you expect to inhabit these spaces. If you want to challenge the assumption that theatre is just a plaything for the moneyed elite, this kind of thing doesn’t help.
Theatre critic Tracey Sinclair puts it succinctly in a recent article on Exeunt. “Having paid through the nose for a ticket to Betrayal, it felt like an added insult to be charged so much for a glass of wine that Tom Hiddleston should have delivered it personally to my seat. I know venues have overheads and times are tough, but going to the theatre shouldn’t be a joyless experience where, if you manage to scrape together the cost of a ticket, you can’t afford a cup of coffee or a glass of wine in the bar.”
The key word there is joyless. A night at the theatre is supposed to be a pleasurable activity. It should be possible to have a glass of wine without incurring anxiety. This might sound like a lot of griping over something trivial, but theatre is an experience as well as an art form – it’s all the small things that surround the work.
No one needs to have a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, but there’s a lot of stuff in life we don’t need yet would still like to enjoy from time to time. While it’s true that in many European countries people would not dream of taking a drink into the theatre, it’s what we do here.
There is, admittedly, something rather daft about us clinging to our plastic cups and trying not to spill them on ourselves and other people as we make our way back to our seat after the interval, but in the UK we have enfolded this into the ritual of our theatregoing, along with small pots of ice cream and concertinaing our bodies into seats designed for Victorian posteriors.
Given all that, it would be nice not to feel fleeced. Prices should be clearly displayed and it would be good, when presented with three options, to be given an indication of whether you’re about to splurge on the costliest of the lot.
Nobody wants to be made to feel embarrassed or awkward when they go out, especially on an occasion that is, for many, a rare treat. The white wine should at least have been somewhere near a fridge (not always a given). It’s a fanciful idea, but if bar takings are central to your business model, perhaps theatres could look into sourcing interesting wines, or at least wines that are not actively sad-making and taste of tears and vinegar.
To be fair, Trafalgar Studios has given this some thought and Nimax prices, while not cheap, are at least in line with central London bars.
Obviously I’m talking about the commercial sector here, and about London theatres in particular (I almost hugged the barman last time I bought a wine at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff); there are a number of subsidised venues that clearly give this a lot of thought.
In an interview with Lyn Gardner for Stagedoor, Lynette Linton, artistic director of London’s Bush Theatre, cited her mother, saying: “She wants to be able to have a cup of tea and not pay too much for it. It’s a constant reminder for me that you have to step outside yourself. I think of the Bush as home and I am comfortable here, but will that 15-year-old who has never been to the theatre before? Or my own Irish mother, who calls me up before every show and asks me if she needs to dress up to go to the theatre? You can’t tell the world, particularly young people: ‘This is your space’ but then say: ‘Oh and a cup of tea will cost you a fiver.'”
Nobody wants to be made to feel embarrassed or awkward when they go out, especially on an occasion that is, for many, a rare treat
Because a cup of tea is more than just a cup of tea. It’s time. It’s comfort. It’s the permission to sit in a space.
Given the erasure of places where people can spend time without having to engage in some form of transaction, the cost of a cup of tea takes on a greater significance.
It wasn’t all that long ago that I used to walk around the block before a show at certain venues because I felt there was a limit on how long I could occupy a space and just read a book without buying something. If people who work in the arts can’t afford to access spaces dedicated to the arts then it strikes me something has gone wrong.
All too often it feels that while some venues have given a lot of thought to inclusion and engagement in terms of their programming, they haven’t given as much care and consideration to the welcome extended by their public spaces.
There are often numerous invisible barriers to entry, be it noise levels in the bar area, the availability of seating, the type of seating (I’m looking at you, Young Vic bar stools) or, yes, the price of a glass of wine.
Theatres are businesses. I’m not blind to that. In constrained times, they need to do all they can to survive. As Rufus Norris patiently explained in a recent article in the Atlantic, in response to grumbling from David Hare: “The Understudy [the National’s bar] contributes to us being able to pay for the set for Peter Gynt.” But these two things need not be mutually exclusive. Theatre is also an industry of the imagination, so surely it shouldn’t be that difficult to find creative ways of meeting everyone’s needs.
Natasha Tripney is The Stage’s reviews editor and joint lead critic. Read more of her columns and reviews at thestage.co.uk/author/natashathestage-co-uk/