In 1809, the newly rebuilt Theatre at Covent Garden (there was just one: imagine!) raised its prices. Pit tickets went up from three-and-a-half shillings to four shillings, while remodelling heavily cut the number of cheap seats. And there was a literal riot. That lasted for an astonishing three months. In which over 20 people died. Audiences waved banners, shouted slogans, and management even tried bringing in professional boxers to keep order. Can you IMAGINE that happening today.
We’re a long way from riots. In fact, it’s vanishingly rare for someone to unequivocally state that rising ticket prices are a Bad Thing in a theatre world where narratives of success are so often defined by ideas of profit and growth.
Back in 2012, a Time Out reviewer had a go at tarnishing the glowing halo that surrounds The Mousetrap, Agatha Christie’s detective drama, which has been running since 1952; “The Mousetrap’s ticket prices are the only element of this show that isn’t stuck fast in the 1950s – although the actors’ strained RP does make the odd break for the twenty-first century. Otherwise, this is a walking, talking piece of theatre history and – at £39 for a full-price stalls seat – the most expensive museum exhibit in London.”
This review is striking for two reasons. Firstly, because most reviewers or critics think that it’s somewhat outside their remit to comment on prices. There’s a sense that art can’t be ascribed monetary value, which might be true, but doesn’t do much to help theatregoers who have to somehow decide if dropping a day’s wages on a half-hour monologue (Sea Wall!) is ‘worth it’. And there’s also the unavoidable truth that most people who write about theatre for a living get all their tickets for free, so the price rises simply don’t register.
The second reason this review is striking is probably something you’ve already noticed: “Wow, just £39 for a stalls seat? Sounds like a bargain!”. The prices that this writer found so outrageous in 2012 have now tripled. The Mousetrap hasn’t updated its set or tweaked its direction. But its top-priced tickets now go for £122. All seats in the stalls and dress circle are £57 or more, and even a ‘cheap’ seat at the back of the upper circle is £27.
It feels unfair to single out The Mousetrap; unlike other West End shows, it funnels a lot of its profits into supporting emerging artists and theatre students. And by West End standards, its current prices are pretty low. The Book of Mormon initially raised eyebrows by being one of the first shows to sell tickets for over £100, but now that’s pretty standard for a Broadway import. Tickets for Sunday in the Park with George START at £45 (just ten years ago, that would have been a premium stalls seat) and max out at £250, excluding plenty of die-hard Sondheim fans from its gorgeous bursts of sunshine. The top ticket price at the National Theatre is £89, and it can’t be long until it crashes through the £100 barrier too.
All this feels extra grotesque when you realise that since 2009, the economy has floundered, and wages have remained the same or fallen in real terms, and the cost of living has risen sharply. We’re not getting richer. But theatres have chosen to stay profitable in uncertain times by adopting the principle of airline pricing. When demand is high, ticket prices are pushed as high as the market can bear.
If a wealthy section of society can and will pay more, why stop them? A free market capitalist would say that people are making a free choice to spend that money, and that producers are entirely within their rights to turn a profit. Julian Bird is the chief executive of SOLT, the umbrella body for West End theatres, and he certainly seems to take that view. Quoted a ticket price survey in The Stage, he sanguinely explains that “Top-price tickets for big West End shows continue to fluctuate year-on-year according to demand and supply”.
He also draws attention to the fact that the cheapest seats are on average getting cheaper, suggesting that producers are using the most expensive tickets to subsidise cheaper seats. That’s probably true in some cases. National Theatre’s abundance of £15 seats used to be subsidised by Travelex; now, there’s a bigger burden on ticket income, against a backdrop of falling arts subsidies. But look to the West End, and the much-vaunted cheap tickets are scarce; a handful of restricted view seats that disappear at warp speed (just four £9 tickets per performance at Les Miserables, for example). Getting affordable tickets involves being dogged, downloading apps like TodayTix or entering daily lotteries or queuing up in the wee hours of the morning. Or being under-30, as though entering your fourth decade comes with an automatic side-helping of bottomless disposable income (spoiler: it doesn’t). People who aren’t already hugely savvy about how theatre works will struggle to find these loopholes and discounts, which means that they’re unlikely to convert the new, more diverse audiences that they’re theoretically targeted at.
West End theatre has never made these less-served audiences a priority, but maybe it should, because it doesn’t exist in a bubble. Its shiny success stories owe a huge amount to the vast numbers of underpaid or unpaid artists who work in the wider industry, and who are effortfully pushing for theatre to be more diverse, more exciting, and more fit for the 21st century. Wildly-successful playwrights and directors and designers aren’t just born fully-formed; they’re made by a scene that ferments new ideas and aesthetics, and offers support and opportunities and spaces with a fraction of the resources it needs. And for every West End superstar, there are hundreds more who have paid for expensive training that they’d never use, creating an infinite pool of disposable talent for producers to pick from. The answer isn’t to make tickets cheaper for ‘industry professionals’. The answer is to understand that the UK’s biggest venues don’t stand apart from the rest of society, and that theatre needs to stay affordable to stay relevant and vital – in short, to be worth rioting for.
If theatre makes itself a ‘luxury product’ or a ‘treat’, it’ll reap the benefits of a market that’s increasingly willing to spend big on ‘experiences’ rather than physical possessions. But if you fork out a lot of money for a theatre ticket, it distorts your relationship to what you’re seeing. I think it puts you under heightened pressure to feel that what you’re seeing is mindblowing, phenomenal, amazing – rather than be critical and closely engaged with what you’re seeing, and risk admitting you’ve wasted your cash. I think it makes you feel entitled to have a higher level of control over your experience; one that you historically didn’t get at the theatre; a lot of the rage about uncomfortable seats and impolite audiences originates with audiences who want to get their money’s worth in the maximum of comfort. And I also think that over time, it breeds conservatism. Expensive theatre becomes freighted and tense. People don’t want to take a risk on a show that costs hundreds of pounds. They want to be sure of a good time; as the Mamma Mia! posters boast, “You already know you’re gonna love it!”.
In 1809, audiences rioted (I would suggest) because they felt a sense of ownership over Covent Garden’s Theatre. It was their community space, somewhere where they could brew in-jokes and smoke and drink, one of the few democratic places where people of every social class could sit down and watch an entertainment together. They resented someone else jeopardising that by ripping out the cheap seats to replace them with expensive boxes, or by reducing the views from the gallery to narrow ‘pigeon holes’ where you could only see the performers’ legs.
Today’s West End is a place where that sense of community and accessibility has largely been lost, and steeply rising prices are both a product and cause of that. I very much doubt that abstract concerns over community and audience experience will encourage West End producers to lower their prices, and dent their profits. Asking free market capitalists to do things ‘because it would be nice’ is just as doomed as a polite 1809 theatre owner’s attempts to reason with a rampaging, orange-throwing mob. But the balance of power has shifted before, and can shift again. The current theatregoing boom isn’t a randomly occurring phenomenon that West End producers should profit from as much as possible while they can, like dolphins eagerly snapping up shoaling herring. There’s a buzz around theatre because of the energy and heat generated by a huge, vibrant, nationwide scene, which brews the West End’s next big hits in fringe theatres (The Play That Goes Wrong, Fleabag) and subsidised powerhouses (Home, I’m Darling, War Horse, and too many others to mention). To stay healthy, it needs to stay accessible to the audiences who’ve shaped where it is now, and the people who’ll shape its future.
For more thoughts on London’s theatreland, read Exeunt’s group piece If we stormed the West End