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West End ticket prices are alienating an entire generation of audiences 🎭

TONIGHT at the Royal Albert Hall, London theatreland will gather for the annual Olivier Awards ceremony.

The Oliviers are seen as the most prestigious awards event in UK theatre.

To be eligible, shows must have played in a theatre that is represented within the membership of the Society of London Theatre (SOLT).

Pop your teeth-grinding guards in and gather round, because it’s time to talk about theatre ticket prices again. Long-suffering theatre fans know that sky-high ticket prices are now par for the course and £395 “package” seats are a complete norm for the London theatres.

In 2015, the most expensive ticket in the West End was £152.25 for The Book of Mormon. It’s more than doubled in less than a decade. 

In recent months actors Cush Jumbo, Ralph Fiennes, David Tennant, and Andrew Scott have hit out against high and elite theatre ticket prices. Some people seem perfectly happy that theatre is now a luxury item. But not me.

This week, Patti LuPone remarked: “I don’t believe how expensive the tickets are at the door. It’s become an elite sport. If you’re going to develop audiences, you have to get young people in the theatre, and they have to see more than Back to the Future.”

On Broadway, the most expensive tickets cost $599 (£480) for Merrily We Roll Along

According to the Broadway League, the average ticket price for a Broadway show has hit a new record high — last season’s (2022-2023) ticket prices corresponded to more than $128.

But if that’s what the markets will bear, what are you supposed to do?

Indeed, while three quarters of Britons are willing to go to the theatre, fewer than half have been in the last 12 months.

A recent survey by YouGov found that 41 per cent of Londoners had been to the theatre in the past year (nationwide it was 31 per cent).

How much is too much for a theatre ticket? During a cost-of-living crisis anyone using dynamic pricing, a pricing strategy that businesses use to gain increased profits by driving up prices during high demand, needs to examine what exactly they are contributing to UK Theatre.

Newsflash: The cost of theatre tickets is the main reason people don’t go.

So, what’s the answer? Will commercial theatre ever not use dynamic pricing? Short answer: No. Because it’s easier, because it’s a habit, because producers and theatre owners can’t think of anything more constructive to do, and because it gets them instant cash.

For example, leading player Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) and their monopoly in the industry is harming customers and artists alike. Premium tickets for the Aladdin UK Tour at ATG’s Theatre Royal Glasgow are as much as £175.

What may sweeten the pill for theatregoers is that in some honest cases at least, the expensive premium seats are subsidising much cheaper tickets aimed at bringing in new, younger audiences.

Across the limited run of Jamie Lloyd’s Romeo & Juliet at the Duke of York’s Theatre, around 10,000 tickets for all tiers (including the front row) have sold out for £25 or less, 5,000 tickets were reserved for people under 30, key workers and in receipt of government benefits.

(Interestingly, Jamie Lloyd’s company recently became fully independent, after 10 years partnering with ATG.)

Up the road, at the Phoenix Theatre (ATG) Sonia Friedman recently revealed Netflix sci-fi prequel spin-off Stranger Things: The First Shadow is attracting “thousands of people who are coming to the theatre for the first time.”

Well, that’s great news.

There is a weekly TodayTix lottery for a dozen front-row ‘Shadow Seats’ at £19.50 each. That said, the venue is a 1,028 seat venue – so, around 1 per cent of seats are under £20 that 99.9999% people probably won’t win.

And if you want to sit in the stalls the cheapest seats are £75 — with a severely restricted view, because of the dreadful overhang from the level above. Top price tickets are as much £250. Of course, there is more price volatility, which can push prices higher due to a surge of last-minute demand.

Alas, despite rising wage bills, rampant inflation, dramatic energy costs, profits seem to be up for the usual suspects in the West End.

As for Andrew Lloyd Webber, recent LW Theatres’ accounts, reveal that sales rose by 19% to £190.7 million from £160.8 million in 2022, with the boost attributed to the end of pandemic disruptions.

In a report posted to Companies House LW noted: “We expect another full year of trading next year but anticipate our turnover and profitability will continue to be put under pressure by the cost-of-living crisis and high interest rates and the impact of these factors on consumer spending.”

Taking in the “broader economic environment”, the report emphasised LW Theatre’s aim to head off falling ticket sales by “continually monitoring and adjusting ticket prices”.

But let’s move on to Cameron Mackintosh Ltd – – that operates eight venues and produces Hamilton– the company saw turnover almost double year on year – to £186 million – Profit before tax was £45.5 million, compared with £18.9 million in 2022.

It was revealed recently that Delfont Mackintosh’s average ticket price for a play is £54. For a musical it’s £68.

Interviewed recently Cameron Mackintosh chirped, with all apparent sincerity: “You would be bloody lucky to get out of a decent restaurant, including a decent bottle of wine, for under £100. It is expensive … But it is not too expensive,”

Mackintosh added: “This is a very good system. This is capitalism working properly.” 

Honestly, no it is not.

In my wildest fantasies I’d like to think Sir Cameron would dwell on an irony here; in reality, people are contending with stagnant wages, high energy bills, staggering food prices and dreadful living standards — one in five tenants are now spending over half their salary on rent. 

Denying accusations of greed, SOLT responded to David Tennant’s criticism of “ludicrous” West End ticket prices, highlighting that average ticket prices have decreased when adjusted for inflation. Well, now. SOLT’s argument is irrelevant since pay does not go up by inflation.

The cheapest seats, which often have a restricted view, and induce vertigo increased by almost 13% this year compared with last. 

Of course, these conditions mean that rising ticket prices are alienating an entire generation of future audiences, it can’t just be left to the subsidised regional theatres to take moral responsibility for building tomorrow’s audiences

So how’s this for a plan? Transparent, clear up-front information about the cost of theatre – it would be a win for everyone.

It would demonstrate to the public how much it takes to get a show on. More schemes like Jamie Lloyd’s – ring fencing cultural opportunity for those from diverse backgrounds. 

And if Broadway publishes weekly grosses, what makes the West End so special not to?

But I’m not expecting two miracles in a week, ’cos all I’ve ever really wanted was West End theatre owners, producers and corporate companies like ATG to make theatre truly accessible. Theatre should be for everyone.

And the tragedy is that we all know it, and even the brilliant people who come up with the brilliant shows know it – but they’re still pushing premium prices because they think that it works in the very short term.

Yet in the long term, it really, really doesn’t – even the most shrewd producer should realise the damage that short-term financial gain does to public perceptions about theatre and who it is for. 

No doubt that well-oiled theatre PR machine will again defend sky-high ticket prices.

Ultimately, of course, one of the biggest questions for many remains: if theatre ceases to be a popular art for people in their twenties and thirties, will it become extinct for all but the wealthy?

Theatre is already being sidelined in favour of movies and gaming. The prominence of reviews and arts coverage is shrinking. Editors know that theatre is no longer an important part of the national cultural conversation. Yup, The Sunday Times now leads with only one theatre review and has all but given up on the idea of providing an overview of the theatre week in London.

Finally, change will not come from the generosity of those who profit from the existing state of affairs. It will emerge from the continued challenge of those who do not. 

Has the hour of need ever been greater?

The Olivier Awards will broadcast a highlights programme on Sunday 14 April at 10:10pm on ITV1.

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Theatre: are we f***ed?

The UK is in recession – which means the economy has been shrinking for most of the last year. 

Theatre is increasing being preserved for the wealthy, which will disproportionately affect the next generation of theatregoers

There has been a lot of discourse about ticket prices since the £400 tickets for Cock starring Taron Egerton fiasco. 

So let’s start with actor David Harewood: “My wife went to the theatre the other day, it cost her nearly £200 – who could afford that?”

Indeed, Harewood, Rada’s first black President, explained that theatre is at risk of ‘vanishing’ because of soaring costs and needs to be protected. 

Hard to argue with that.

Without wishing to over-egg a pudding that is already 90% meringue, audiences need increased transparency in ticket sales, and protecting from overpriced tickets.

In related news, then, Cameron Mackintosh Ltdrecently saw turnover almost double year on year – to £186 million – as the company reported its first full 12 months of accounts since the pandemic. Still, Mackintosh famously said “Theatre’s excellence comes at a price.”

Some guys have all the luck.

Plaza Suite in the West End, starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, is selling “premium” seats at £395 (plus a £3.80 transaction fee!). That’s more than the average weekly rent for a studio flat in Primrose Hill.

Where does this end? Who are the people other than billionaire theatre owners, paid publicists, lapdoggy influencers and ATG staff defending premium prices? Literally nobody.

Increasingly, however, it’s not just me and David Harewood who are alarmed about eye-watering ticket prices.

Last year, Dominic West called West End ticket prices “crazy”.

Ralph Fiennes suggested to BBC One’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg that ticket prices are “worryingly high,” in the West End. “We can do it (lower prices),” he said.

David Tennant, recently said some theatre tickets had become “ludicrously” expensive and warned that young people would be deterred from going.

Society of London Theatre co-chief executive Claire Walker responded to Tennant’s criticism highlighting that average ticket prices had decreased when adjusted for inflation. Hmm.

Heck, even Patsy Ferran is uncomfortable with it all: “Theatre should be accessible. If tickets get to a certain price that only a very small amount of people can have access, it gets to be problematic… Prices have reached a point that is shocking to me, but maybe I should just get used to it.”

And it was unarguably powerful to hear Andrew Scott say seats costing £150 are driving away young people and risk keeping theatre ‘elitist’.

Scott told BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme: “No matter how zeitgeisty or how modern you think your play is, if you are having to spend £150, no person between the age of 16-25 or beyond is going to be able to afford that. That is frustrating to me.”

Of course, these criticisms have been flung at the West End for over a decade, and they routinely bounce off armour-plated titans like ATG, a company with all the too-big-to-fail swagger of a debt collection agency.

A recent survey by The Stage newspaper showed the average price of the most expensive tickets was £141, but the average price of the cheapest had risen by more than inflation to £25. The latter development is a serious concern; these prices are creeping closer to Broadway levels.

Well, according to theatre producer Patrick Gracey, top prices “reflect demand and the willingness and capacity to pay by those people who want the best possible seats.”

He stated that it can cost up to £350,000 a week to operate a West End musical, which means that the production might need to sell £500,000 of tickets that same week to meet its operating costs.

Anyway, Cush Jumbo summed things up recently: “Audiences would be shocked to know what the actors performing on that stage are getting (paid) a week” she says. “Because it wouldn’t pay for two of those seats.”

Alas, even with the painful cost of living crisis, people are still paying the crazy prices. Of course, I agree this is a sensible way to balance the economical challenges of producing star driven work, with a limited run in the West End in 2024. But if you are on £34,963 a year – the median annual salary in the UK in 2022 – and after you have paid tax and national insurance, it would represent around one week’s pay.

Anyhow, I can’t believe it even needs to be said out loud: if no theatre producers agree to dynamic pricing on their shows, it would cease to exist. Trotting out ‘supply and demand’ won’t cut it. Economically, short-term salvation lies in the middle-class pound that extends to interval champagne and cheeseboards.

Nevertheless, I guess we are where we are. But what if that place is Birmingham? Or Bristol? Communities will soon be paying the price of horrifying 100% cuts made by the city councils to many theatre’s arts funding, in a move that has been termed “cultural vandalism” by many.

A holy slap has been delivered to theatres, and even a business built on pretending increasingly no longer avoids acknowledging it.

Suffolk County Council is exploring a new funding model after the total withdrawal of investment. Meanwhile, senior Labour councillors in Nottingham have refused to back proposed recent council cuts that included an 100% reduction to arts funding.

Surely it is now time for the bigger theatres to develop more innovative approaches to pricing, and address head on the issue that keeps most people out of theatres: the fact that the cost of going is often disproportionate to the experience offered. 

The increasing number of lotteries for tickets are not the answer, either. Often these lotteries involve very few tickets. 

Bring back day seats.

With the world on the brink of nuclear armageddon, I know this all sounds like a lazy swipe at the West End for being an uncaring behemoth, and of course it is, but there’s a serious point. 

We have got a big problem.

Indeed, judging by the commercialisation of theatre, current elitist trends and hundreds of comments on social media around this topic, perhaps 2024 will be the year the West End finally becomes a place where the young, working class and state educated are no longer welcome. 

That would be a tragedy.

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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