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October 23, 2011

London Theatre – Culture in Cash-strapped Times

by Val Reynolds

Autumn feels like it’s well and truly here, and for many, leisure time turns from the great outdoors and holidays to more cultural pursuits. But in an age of cutbacks and belt-tightening, the question is, are the supermarket price wars and the constant sales in the high streets mirrored in the world of the arts? The answer in the main is, I’m afraid, no.

The Palladium

The Palladium

True, the usual theatre discount outlets are still in place. The half-price ticket booth, tkts, in Leicester Square and also now at Brent Cross is a good source for some productions, as are the online sellers www.whatonstage.com and www.lastminute.com/theatre. But they generally only offer reductions on the top-price seats, plus a fairly hefty commission.

And as has been the case for the last few years, the West End is dominated with blockbuster musicals offering seats at eyewatering prices while providing the feel-good factor that comes with an escapist night out. But that feeling of elation is soon quashed when the credit card bill comes.

The top-price seats for mainstream drama in the West End are now also in some cases what I would call prohibitively expensive.

I was tempted to go to see Driving Miss Daisy, a two-hander starring Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, wonderfully reviewed but not, in my opinion, worth £58.50.

A Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill and starring David Suchet is scheduled to start well into 2012 with top-price seats at £68.50, and is, to my mind surprisingly, selling well already.

True, you don’t have to buy the top-price seats. But as I get older I find it difficult to hear anywhere but quite near the stage and face-on – dare I suggest others might be in the same boat. So we’re caught in a bit of a bind: is it worth paying less for a less than satisfactory night out? But it’s also true that you don’t have to go to the West End for your theatrical entertainment. As I’ve written in these pages before, the National Theatre probably offers the best value for money and the best theatrical content; with many of its plays still part of the wonderful Travelex season, you have the opportunity to see great drama for as little as £12.

Then there are the off-West End productions at theatres such as the Almeida in Islington and the Donmar in Covent Garden which offer seats at much lower prices. But here’s another grumble: both theatres are quite small and invite you to become a member at various levels, which entitles you to priority booking. The cheapest form of membership at the Almeida, for example, is £50. Suffice it to say that if you’re not a member of these theatres, by the time you’re allowed to make your booking many of the productions, especially at the Donmar, are completely sold out. You can’t win!

Luckily, the fringe usually offers wonderful value for money and generally a more unusual night out. Check out the fringe theatres near you, don’t forget the upstairs rooms of local pubs. And of course, there’s always the cinema. Many have now been refurbished and the quality of the image and sound has been greatly enhanced. But, and I’m sure you can guess at what’s coming next, the prices at some cinemas are really quite exhorbitant.

Please allow me just one more rant! My local cinema, the Swiss Cottage Odeon, was shut for a number of months for refurbishment and reopened in September with great fanfare as the new north London Imax venue. It still shows a good variety of films and I must say I was pleasantly surprised on going there during the first week to find that the ticket prices had only risen marginally. That, I’m afraid, didn’t last long – I checked online the other day and they have now nearly doubled less than a month later! They won’t be seeing me there much again. However, the Curzon cinema chain (including the Renoir, the Mayfair, the Soho and the Richmond Curzon) show the best films in London at a very reasonable price in a popcorn free environment. That’s for me!

Jeannette NelsonArts Critic
A bit of a culture vulture, Jeannette enjoys art exhibitions, cinema and classical music, but her main interest is the theatre. For several years she ran theatre discussion groups for which her MA in Modern Drama together with teaching skills stood her in good stead. She prefers to concentrate on the many off West End and fringe productions as well as that real treasure of the London theatre scene, the National.

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