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Unchecked Ticket Hikes Are Pricing People Out Of Theatregoing

Glow sticks. We’ll come on to that in a moment.

This week, The iPaper’s Kasia Delgado issued an indictment of A Streetcar Named Desire’s £305 ticket prices, stating: “Theatre needs to make money. It also needs to remain valued and loved, and if only people with loads of spare cash, or a very relaxed approach to credit card debt, end up being able to see it, I worry about where that’ll leave the best form of entertainment that exists. An art form, that – after all – Shakespeare famously put on stage for anyone and everyone.”

Inflation busting premium ticket prices of £305, plus booking fee, is not only absurd, it is criminal amid the cost of living crisis.

To the West End, currently a topsy turvy combination of premium pricing, day seats and even a ‘game of chance’ involving glow sticks.
Rip off

Heck, even leading lady Patsy Ferran is uncomfortable with it all, stating in an interview recently: “The last couple of years theatre prices have reached a point that is shocking to me, but maybe I should just get used to it.”

In reality, profit thirsty ATG’s dominant market position means the company does not face any pressure to continually innovate and improve.

Of course, our old friend dynamic pricing is at play. I get it. Streetcar is a commercial show entitled to charge whatever the market can take.

But affordability equals sustainability, and sensible ticket prices are key to the theatre’s survival.

Speaking on a panel entitled Building a Better Financial Model for Theatre at The Stage’s Future of Theatre conference, Lighting designer Paule Constable said that premium tickets have generated a “wave of discontent” within the industry.

She added: “We need more transparency around how that money is spent. We, as a workforce, need to make the effort to understand that more and it needs to be talked about more.”

It’s hard not to admit that she has a point. Theatre has got to be kept accessible to everybody, because ultimately everything depends on keeping audiences excited about going.

Still, you can see A Streetcar Named Desire for a tenner. If you queue up 2.5 hours before performances for a glowstick (yes, really). Out of the 30, five glow sticks glow green when snapped. The lucky five can head to the box office and buy a pair of front row £10 tickets. There is a weekly lottery.

Send in the clowns. Ah, don’t bother. They’re here.

Phoenix Theatre Glowstick Day Seat Queue

Anyway, once I’d peeled myself off the ceiling, I went along to embrace the madness this week. Reader, my glow stick did not glow. But I was offered a £35 seat in the dress circle or a £10 standing ticket. I opted for the £10 standing ticket. Later my phone rang and I was put in a house seat. Lucky, eh.

A representative for A Streetcar Named Desire said that 83% of all its tickets have been sold at £100 or under. Hm.

Still, the average face value of top-price tickets in the West End has rocketed by a fifth since 2019, a recent survey by The Stage revealed. Glancing at a handful of West End shows £1-300 stalls seats are sadly standard now.

Of course, this fluctuates year on year and is frequently influenced by a small number of high-profile shows. Last year, Cock – starring Jonathan Bailey – saw producers disastrously try and flog £400 tickets, stating it was based on “supply and demand”

What are we to conclude from this?

As in many economic situations, there is a squeezed middle: theatre lovers who are neither wealthy enough to buy premium tickets and who don’t have a flexible work / life pattern to queue in person or online for discounted tickets. 

Seven Card Stud

Surely, extending personalised pricing to students or the unwaged, which was widespread in the 1980s, would maximise audiences. That said, personalised pricing can be progressive. In Finland, for example, speeding tickets are based on your income

All the same, I worry that we shall soon reach the point of no return, that the gap between the commercial and subsidised sector is growing ever wider and that the young will be put off by high prices. Of course, the system is broken, it’s not working for weary audiences.

But it’s not just the rising ticket prices that worry me. It’s also the sense of banality afflicting the West End. There are, as ever, 33 musicals of varying quality currently running. We should ponder both the escalating cost of tickets and the actual quality of what is on offer. 

Anyway, I’m with singer Neil Young who last week said it best: “It’s over” and that “the old days are gone” amid wider consternation at ticketing company’s pricing policies. And that is where we are. 

Paul Mescal and Patsy Ferran in A Streetcar Named Desire

Since the success of the subsidised and commercial sectors are intimately bound, it can’t just be left to subsidised theatre to take responsibility for building tomorrow’s audiences, the West End has to play – and pay – its part too.

A Streetcar Named Desire runs until 6 May

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SOS: Let’s Talk About Theatre Audiences Misbehaving

Going to the theatre – particularly jukebox musicals – in 2023 seems to sum up an entire nation tormented by its class prejudices, insecurities, self-loathing, and entitlement.

Indeed, last week, Edinburgh Playhouse director Colin Marr warned abuse towards his front-of-house staff was unacceptable and said that he was “disgusted and angry” with dreadful behaviour aimed at his team in recent weeks.

In a statement posted online, he said: “This is becoming far too regular an occurrence – not just in our theatre but in venues across the UK. There is a very small minority of people who come to our theatre and choose to sing, dance, and talk throughout the show in a manner that disturbs others.”

Eye poppingly, a 51-year-old man and 54-year-old woman were arrested and charged in connection with an alleged brawl during the performance of Jersey Boys.

Jersey Boys

A witness told the Daily Record: “Staff asked him to calm down but because he was drunk he took offence and started throwing punches. It took about four ushers to restrain him and then another fight broke out in the stalls.”

Oh, what a night!

Furthermore, The King’s Theatre in Glasgow issued a similar appeal on social media during the recent run of The Bodyguard, urging audiences not to sing along during shows.

This prompted my suggestion for jukebox audiences to be breathalysed. The replies in that thread are beyond grim. Smoking in the upper circle at Pretty Woman, a teenager throwing up on her friend at The Cher Show and a family sharing a pizza at Moulin Rouge!

Glasgow statement

Maddest of the lot, though, inevitably came from a poor soul at & Juliet whose skull was used to steady the person behind her, who’d left mid-show for a toilet break, I’m guessing. 

So, have audiences simply forgotten how to behave?

Alas, last year, Deadline’s Baz Bamigboye reported seeing an audience member light up a joint at Get Up, Stand Up!, the Bob Marley jukebox musical. “We were standing outside the bar and the security guards raced past us. I said ‘What’s going on?’ and they said ‘A guy’s lit up a spliff in the stalls bar.’ We could actually smell something and it wasn’t a scented candle.”

And having endured weeks of pain in the a**e punters in The Drifter’s Girl Beverley Knight tweeted: “If your intention is to come to the theatre, get rat-arsed, make a scene, disrupt the show … My advice is stay your ass at home.”

Certainly, though, research indicates that post-pandemic restrictions easing there has been a spike violent behaviour and a “reversed maturity” which has caused personalities to revert to that of a challenging toddler. Go figure.

In a sane world nobody should have to police anybody else in the theatre. Like so much these days the pleasures of the vast majority are being compromised by the thoughtlessness of the drunken minority. 

Edinburgh Playhouse

In any case, I was stunned to see bouncers in the stalls at Bat Out Of Hell – another cost to producers – in an attempt to tackle increasingly drunken audiences who misbehave during weekend performances on the UK tour.

Elsewhere, SOLT/UK Theatre are floating a ‘respect campaign’ and recently said that it was looking into the scale of the problem and described audience yobbishness as a “growing issue – that we don’t fully understand the scale of yet”.

It goes almost without saying then, moneymaking ventures like ATG’s At-Seat service providing Yorkshire crisps, Sweet Chilli Pretzels, and bottles of champagne directly to your seat pre-show and during the interval. This has a lot to do with the hellish noise and lack of consideration on display. 

Trouble is, it’s show-business and “bums on seats” that count, obviously. Ticket prices are now completely unregulated and have surged 20% from pre-pandemic levels, but that doesn’t mean people can do as they please. 

In recent times, it seems Scotland and the West End are not the only place resembling feeding time at the zoo. In a – now deleted Playbill article – the key takeaway was that since pandemic lockdowns, live Broadway audiences have got more wild, hostile and disgusting, too. 

In it, a Broadway front of house manager explains: “It’s been horrible, no two ways about it… I cannot overstate how much it changed things. A bartender at a pub has the ability to cut someone off when they’re getting too drunk; they have bouncers to back them up. Our bartenders don’t have the ability to cut someone off, because we’re told to sell as many souvenir cups as we can. I’m sure higher-ups are making money hand over fist, but we’re stuck dealing with unruly drunks almost every week.”

Audience cheer for the actors at the Richard Rodgers theatre towards the end of the first return performance of Hamilton, as Broadway shows re-open

All this got me thinking: is it time to give persistently antisocial audiences a 12-month ban? Maybe.

Often theatre is all about being in the moment — in a public space — don’t forget that everyone has their own moments!

In the meantime, here’s my theatregoing checklist: Arrive 20 minutes early. Phone off. Stay quiet (if you are inclined). Don’t fight – overreacting to drunks is also antisocial. No crisps. No ice. Stop rattling your jewellery. Stay awake. Enjoy the show.

In Elizabethan times audiences clapped and shouted whenever they felt like it. Sometimes they threw fruit. 

My, how far we’ve come . . .