London theatres too expensive for regular theatregoers

James Haddrell, the artistic and executive director of Greenwich Theatre, gives his opinion on increasing theatre prices.

I cannot remember a time when political debate has dominated the media more than it has in recent months. Even the Brexit referendum itself failed to dominate the media as much as the “deal or no deal” debate that is now raging.

We could be forgiven for thinking that the work of our politicians has all but ceased in everything except Brexit negotiation. However, while this drags on, other political discussion does continue, and in the House of Lords last week a topic close to my heart was introduced by Liberal Democrat peer Patrick Boyle – a request for government to address the apparently prohibitive theatre ticket prices in the West End.

“London theatres are already becoming too expensive for many regular theatregoers,” he said, “and I hope the government will take this issue very seriously.

“As we all know, one of the many reasons that people come to London is its theatres, but they are gradually becoming too expensive for anyone to be able to attend major plays.”

I have written in this column before about ticket pricing for theatre. The annual ticket price survey conducted by The Stage in 2018 revealed that 20 out of 37 commercial shows in the West End had top-price tickets costing £100 or more. This year, top price tickets for Hamilton have reached £250, with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child charging £175 per part for top price tickets to a two-part show.

Sherlock Holmes – A Sign of Four and No Miracles Here (above)

The argument will inevitably follow that audiences do not have to pay the top price to see a show and that a range of ticket prices are available.

Producers will regularly herald “£15 tickets at every performance” or similar, but the majority of shows offering that are selling restricted view, upper circle or both for that price. That’s £15 to be unable to see the show properly. I wouldn’t pay £6.99 for a novel where I couldn’t read every page, or £12.50 for a cinema ticket where I was sat behind a pillar, so why would I do that to go to the theatre?

I am not naïve about the costs involved in producing a West End show. These shows often have a weekly running cost of £250,000 and need to run for well over a year with sales above 60 per cent to stand a chance of repaying their investors.

However, as difficult as it may be, in this industry we need to consider the future as much as we do the present. We seem able to understand environmental threats that will affect our children more than us and we moderate our behaviour accordingly. Should we not take the long view with theatre as well? If we don’t, we run the risk of a future where theatre has died out or become the rare preserve of the rich.

Many people consider a trip to the theatre too expensive, and if people are not attending now there is nothing to suggest that will change in the future. Then there are those people who save up and go to the West End to see a big show every couple of years. The industry can’t survive on those kind of intermittent visits. We need audiences to engage with theatre the way they do with cinema, for it to be economically accessible as a regular pastime.

The answer to making theatre successful and sustainable is not to increase prices to entice investors, but to decrease prices to entice audiences. Local theatre has a major place to play in that. If audiences are able to attend their local theatres on a more regular basis then theatre becomes a part of their regular leisure activity, and that is something that we strive to make possible at Greenwich Theatre.

Despite grant cuts of around 80 per cent in the past four years, we have not increased ticket prices to make audiences pay us the difference – by contrast, we have kept ticket prices low to encourage repeat visits.

Three visits at £15 per ticket is far better than one visit at £50 per ticket. If audiences can only access theatre very rarely, or never, then it is destined to die out. If they can attend regularly, then theatre has every chance of a bright future.

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