Earlier this month, at the National Theatre’s most recent press conference, everyone’s favourite white, male director (WMD, henceforth) Rufus Norris announced that everyone’s favourite bureau de change was ending its sponsorship deal, and thus putting in jeopardy everyone’s favourite discounted ticket plan. That’s right: Travelex Tickets, the scheme that for over a decade has made quite literally bundles of tickets at the National available for just £10, latterly £15, will breathe its last next year.
Theatre fans nationwide hold their breath in desperate anticipation of RuNo announcing a replacement: the fate of the National, the theatre industry, and basically the whole world hangs in the balance, dependent upon another arts-loving, commercially-monied philanthropist (preferably not a dick like Branson or some oil guy) putting his hand into his pocket and stumping up the cash to subsidise tickets for another decade or so. Presumably he gets the Dorfman renamed after him thrown in, like Travelex’s Lloyd Dorfman did. Let’s hope its not someone with a stupid name like, I don’t know, Fred Toilet of Fred Toilet’s Toilet Company. Or something.
Theatre professionals all over have taken to Twitter in their tens to voice their gratitude for the scheme’s existence and their dismay at its discontinuation. And quite rightly. I join that chorus gladly. As A Very Important Member Of The Press, I regularly pay absolutely bagel to see shows but not that long ago, dear reader, I was just like you, scrabbling around on theatre websites, hunting out the cheapest tickets available. I’ve sat behind pillars for £30. I’ve trekked up to lofty balconies, pausing only briefly at base camp before the final ascent, for £40. I’ve gazed down upon Simon Russell-Beale’s shiny bald head from on high for £25. I’ve lived that life. I know its bitter taste, and I know what a shining beacon of affordability Travelex Tickets are.
It’s not just at the National that Travelex Tickets have had an impact. A much-loved relic of former NT chief and fellow WMD Nick Hytner’s glorious 12-year reign, the scheme was not just a reliable way of getting to see shows at our flagship theatre, it was the beginning of something: a ground-breaking development in ticketing policy, industry-wide, and not just in the subsidised sector. Where Hytner led, others dutifully followed: Travelex Tickets heralded the age of daily lotteries, reduced-price day seats, pay-what-you-want performances. Of going to the theatre and not having to choose between a sandwich and a bus ride home. Luxury of luxuries: you could have both! Huzzah!
But hold on right there for one sec, because it’s not that simple…
What does it say about The Theatre that most venues now have to have reduced price ticket schemes so that normal people can afford to go? Surely the proliferation of these schemes over recent years isn’t actually something to celebrate, but a damning indictment of just how pricey going to The Theatre has become? Instead of lauding theatres for occasionally letting some young/poor/disadvantaged people in the door via ticket schemes, shouldn’t we instead call them out for a pricing structure that requires them to have such a scheme in the first place? A night at The Theatre is spenny, and it’s getting more so. The cost of regular tickets is rising pretty much everywhere, and if you want a glimpse of the hellish dystopia we are headed for, then just take a look at Broadway, where you can now pay back your ridiculously expensive theatre ticket in monthly ‘FlexPay’ instalments, like it’s a fucking car or something. How mental is that? It’s basically taking out a mortgage for a night out.
Which brings me onto point number two: it’s all very well and good offering “disadvantaged” – even that terminology is kind of iffy – people seats at a reduced price, but what seats are you offering them? The shit ones, usually, is the answer. Stand at the back of the Lyttleton for a fiver – yep, you can do that – and you’re practically closer to Embankment than you are to the stage. Good luck seeing the actors, let alone hearing them. Go see a Donmar show for £10 – yep, that’s also doable – and you will be lucky if you see even the top of the actors’ heads. Sit up top at the Royal Court for fourteen pounds? Go for it. Enjoy that metal bar sticking right into your face.
And that’s just subsidised theatres – don’t even get me started on the West End, where pretty much any seat under £30 guarantees you either a pillar in your eyeline, a view that only encompasses a quarter of the stage, or deep vein thrombosis from contorting your legs into a position they simply weren’t designed for. And one distinctly senses in some cases, particularly in certain popular wizard-themed plays in the West End, that the presence of a few cheap tickets is used to excuse the naked profiteering going on elsewhere, where regular seats are slapped with a “premium” label and a couple of extra zeros are added to their price tag.
And thirdly, now you’ve asked: how accessible are these ticketing schemes, really? After he advised aspiring playwrights to see at least three plays a week, Paines’ Plough’s artistic director James Grieve offered a handy-dandy rundown of all the ways you can get cheap theatre tickets. The good news is that there are plenty. The bad news is that you’re over the age of 25, you might just be out of luck.
What’s great about Travelex Tickets is that they’re relatively straightforward to get hold of, but that’s not the case with all of the innumerable similar schemes that have sprung up in their wake. Even if they’re not age-limited, a lot of them require you to be on the right website at exactly the right time. A lot of them you have to enter an email ballot for. A lot of them you have to queue up either extremely early or right before the show starts for. A lot of them you have to ask for specifically at the box office because they don’t appear on the websites. Almost all of them you have to already know a bit about The Theatre to be aware of their existence. All of which restricts who can get their grubby mitts on them to people that a) live within touching distance of central London, b) don’t have anything better to do with their days than hunt out tickets, and c) are pretty fucking keen on theatre in the first place.
Aaaaand, on top of all that, there are the ethical considerations. Commercial theatres can basically do whatever they want, but should subsidised theatres really be getting into bed with major corporations? Travelex is pretty inoffensive as far as ticketing partners go – they just change your pounds for euros at the airport really – but consider some alternatives. Even the thought of seeing something at a Virgin-sponsored NT season, for example, makes me feel pretty queasy. Excuse me for a second.
Sorry, better now. But why are tickets getting more and more expensive? In commercial theatre, you could easily say it’s cos everyone’s a money-grubbing arsehole. But theatres have to survive. And in a cash-strapped arts culture where even subsidised venues are under strict pressure to be financially viable, the equation is always going to be weighted towards pushing up the prices. Unless, of course, some lovely man like Lloyd Dorfman comes in with a scheme to help you out. But aren’t there other ways to fight the endless rise in average ticket costs? If small venues like New Diorama can manage to pay everyone and still keep prices under £20, why can’t subsidised venues that are five times their size at least try to do the same?
To quote the founding father of the Travelex Tickets’ thrilling autobiography, theatre is all about balancing acts. And that’s particularly true when it comes to ticket pricing. It’s a great big balancing act between providing access and making money, between ensuring your audience isn’t completely old and white and rich, and being able to survive and prosper as a theatre. To put it bluntly: the price of entry is the single biggest factor in ensuring accessibility, and without accessibility, The Theatre will simply revert to being the hobby of the privileged. That is what it ultimately boils down to.
So let’s mourn Travelex Tickets passing. Let’s begrudgingly acknowledge its impact. But let’s not kid ourselves that discounted price ticket schemes are a wholly good thing, because it’s complicated and they’re not. If anything, they’re a symptom of a broken system. So much paper over the cracks.
For more of Fergus Morgan’s column, see his recent piece on The Kiln’s rebrand.