“To Frank and Alex… at last, people are holding hands in the theatre again! All my love, David Merrick.” This was the message, placed in a heart, published in an infamous three-column advertisement in the New York Times in 1990. It was taken out by the late producer David Merrick and directed to then-New York Times’ critic Frank Rich and fellow writer Alex Witchel following Rich’s damning review of his musical revival of Oh Kay!.
At the performance Rich attended, Merrick spotted him with Witchel and observed this was more than two colleagues on a night out. The pair were secretly dating (and would later go on to marry). Merrick’s wrath had come from what he considered Witcher’s unprofessional behaviour during the performance negatively affecting the review, as she had giggled, held Rich’s hand and whispered to him throughout. When Rich saw the advert in his own newspaper, he demanded that it was pulled from later editions, but by then the word was out and Merrick’s stunt had become the stuff of Broadway legend.
It was one of many that Merrick directed at critics during his career. So he would probably have thoroughly approved of the proposal for critics to be offered only one ticket to press nights, which some UK theatres have attempted to introduce in the past few years. However, he may not be quite so happy with the ongoing discrimination towards single-ticket buyers at many productions who have always provided useful ‘bread and butter’ income for shows.
In 2016, I pointed out the growing challenges facing single-ticket buyers trying to get their seat of choice at various West End productions. In the years since, it has continued to spread to other theatres. When booking a single seat for selected productions in the West End on the online theatre plan, a pesky note can pop up when trying to choose a seat where there are others available next to it. It will say that it’s not possible to separate seats. This leaves four choices for the single ticket buyer: book two seats; select another seat – if you can find one – somewhere else in the auditorium, but which may not offer as a good view; be forced into paying for a higher-price ticket if a single is available or… don’t bother going.
Over the past two months, the Society of London Theatre has been running its excellent annual new year sale, offering discounted tickets for a selection of top West End shows. It has long served as a great introduction for many newcomers to theatre. But through this sale, it has not always been possible to buy a single ticket if that means separating available seats on the plan – even though often only pairs of seats are available. This appears to make an unfortunate statement that single-seat buyers are not as valued. Yet if you stand by the TKTS booth in Leicester Square that sells discounted West End tickets on the day of performance, you’ll see a large number of single-seat transactions.
It’s a big problem for any single-ticket buyer who wants to book in advance for a highly anticipated show. In this online model, for a single-ticket booker to stand a chance of getting a ticket, they may simply have to buy two seats, or otherwise risk being stuck in an online queue for ages hoping that a single ticket may be released while at the mercy of being timed out, and so miss the opportunity altogether.
No theatre wants seating gaps, but the customer shouldn’t miss out, or feel duped into paying over the odds for a ticket
It’s important to see both sides of this argument: understandably, no theatre wants seating gaps, but the customer shouldn’t feel frustrated about the process, miss out, or feel duped into paying over the odds for a ticket.
Therefore, theatres must be transparent. When it comes to single-ticket sales in venues where this policy is in use, theatres need to better monitor these allocations and ensure that at all prices, there is a decent selection of single seats available, and not just in the premium sections.
Plenty of cards with hearts on them will drop through letter boxes tomorrow. But if you are single on Valentine’s Day, don’t despair. Solo theatregoing can be a delight, perhaps avoiding arguments at the interval about leaving or a frosty ride home over the choice of show. And if you do want to discuss that obscure six-hour Ancient Greek play performed entirely in masks, then there is always that stranger sitting in the seat next to you, or an online forum that’s been set up about it.
It’s time theatres showed these intrepid solo theatregoers some love again even if it may all add up to less handholding in the stalls. David Merrick would surely approve.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan