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£400 tickets for West End Cock? No thanks.

Well….

The cynic, as Oscar Wilde put it, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. For commentators, that switches into reverse: indifferent to price, we are expected to deliberate value. 

Full disclosure, I am privileged to not have to usually pay for tickets. Occasionally, though, I despair. I feel there is no place for the working class in theatre. This is by no means my first rodeo, either.

This week, premium tickets for Mike Bartlett’s play Cock – starring Jonathan Bailey and Joel Harper-Jackson – were put on sale with ticket prices that had been spiked to £400.

If you thought that was bad, though, add the additional burden of ATG’s booking fees, the total came to £460. £460!  A sorry state of affairs.

Let’s do a brief summary: Cock is directed by Marianne Elliott and made headlines after understudy Harper-Jackson stepped into replace Taron Egerton who left suddenly due to ‘personal reasons’ having fainted during the first preview.

A spokesperson for the 90-minute play defended the unprecedented ticket prices as the result of “supply and demand.” That’s showbiz, honey. However, following backlash producers Elliott & Harper subsequently reduced the cost of the seats significantly.

Photograph: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

The world may be shifting, but we must remind commercial producers – especially those recently in receipt of three rounds of significant Culture Recovery Funds – the value of accessible and affordable tickets, and a sense of the very real dangers should they discard it.

The risk of knowing the price of everything is that you can end up forgetting about its value.

Nevertheless, 15% of tickets sold have been at £20 and there is a daily lottery with tickets at this price point. Ambassadors Theatre is also a small house with only 444 seats. But most of these £20 tickets require a degree of flexibility not compatible with most people’s lives.

Still, the West End is a supply-and-demand business – and if there is escalating demand, there will be little pressure for a ceiling on what producers and theatre owners will seek to earn from. Even so, accessible tickets equal sustainability, as fair ticket prices encourage theatre-going generally and are key to the creative industries survival.

Data collected by the Society of London Theatre for 2019 found that the average ticket price for its member venues, which include all of the commercial West End and London’s major subsidised theatres, was £52.17. 

Anyway, Cock briefly became the most expensive play in West End history, thanks to dynamic pricing. First developed for the retail sector, dynamic pricing software uses algorithms to tell a theatre what they can get away with charging. It felt like a tipping point.

Photograph: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Top-price Cock premium seats are now £175. Ones that had been greedily priced at £350 are now £150, additionally £300 tickets are now on sale at £125 plus booking fees. Quite frankly, still absurd for a 90-minute play.

In reality, however, inflated ticket prices – particularly West End ticket prices – risk alienating an entire generation of future audiences as increasingly unaffordable tickets further limits audiences to very rich white people – whose wealth largely surged during the pandemic.

The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) have predicted the UK will fall into recession this year. What’s more, an estimated 1.5 million households across the UK will struggle to pay food and energy bills, as rising prices, and higher taxes squeeze budgets. This, coupled with the ongoing decimation of cultural education in our state schools, is a theatre time bomb. Potential audience members now face the choice between heating and eating, rather than whether to have an interval ice cream.

Yet the ever more pressing wider issue is that theatre’s future, and indeed recovery, rests entirely on the next generation of theatre-goers. Price them out at your peril. Habits are changing fast; with disrupted education, rising rents and low wages.

Photograph: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Producers Elliott & Harper have stated that they will not be commenting further, but this outcome speaks for itself.

This U-turn was not just a people-power social media victory: this was direct action. A historic watershed.

That is all.

Cock is at the Ambassadors theatre, London, until 4 June

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