Like a lot of things in life, buying a theatre ticket is a bit of a lottery. Advance publicity is such that it’s quite possible to be made aware of productions months, or even sometimes more than a year, before the first night. So the question arises: How far ahead are you prepared to commit yourself? Do you plan holidays, weddings and other major events in your life before or after buying theatre tickets?
And of course, buying a ticket for a play is quite akin to buying the proverbial pig in a poke. You may find that the tickets you’ve looked after for so long turns out to be for a performance that you feel like walking out of at the end of the first act. You never know.
Much of the long lead-in time to many plays is because of the hectic schedules of the many TV and film stars who feel their acting career is not complete without treading the boards of the London stage. The pulling power of these celebrities is inestimable; they frequently perform for what is for them a low wage, yet the run is likely to be sold out and sold out very quickly simply because their name is on the bill. No wonder theatre producers are anxious to acquire their services. The Young Vic website faltered and tickets were sold in record time when it was announced that Gillian Anderson was to play Blanche Dubois in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. Martin Freeman, of Sherlock and Hobbit fame, has attracted adoring audiences to his portrayal of Richard III at the Trafalgar Studios. And apparently, visitors to the Barbican website were told that there were about number 30,000 in a queue when they attempted to buy tickets to see Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet more than a year ahead!
And with the rise of star power in the theatre has come the inexorable rise of ticket prices. To be fair, non West End houses have shown a little more restraint in their pricing (although it must be remembered that theatres like the National are lucky recipients of subsidies), but even community theatres like the Almeida, Hampstead and the Tricycle have had a considerable price hike. Whereas it doesn’t seem that long ago it was only for lavish musicals theatres charged £50 or more for a top-price seat, this is now, more often than not, the second or third tier price level for the majority of performances in the West End. And at a recent Kevin Spacey one-man show about the American lawyer Clarence Darrow, the top-price seats were over £100! This to me does seem rather disproportionate considering what you could get for that princely sum. When you add to the price of a ticket the extras entailed with a night at the theatre, travel there, eating out, then you wonder why so many people choose to go to the theatre at all.
Yet a recent poll revealed that more people go to the theatre than to football matches and that attendances by a younger audience is on the rise. And all over the country there’s always the option of going to smaller, fringe venues where the quality can often be high and the prices low. Paying a fortune for a performance doesn’t guarantee a brilliant experience, and you can be awestruck when you’ve spent just a few pounds on a theatre ticket. As I said, life’s a bit of a lottery!
Jeannette Nelson, arts critic with special interest in theatre
That’s not to say that the West End never hosts a gem of a play; it’s really a question of winkling them out. Happily there is at least one to regale us playing currently: Simon Gray’s Butley at the Duchess Theatre. Well staged and admirably acted, notably by Dominic West playing the eponymous anti-hero, this play may be celebrating its fortieth anniversary but its rather bleak theme of the disintegration of a rather unpleasant man is, perhaps unfortunately, timeless.
Mark Rylance will reprise his star turn in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem which was sold out during the original run and was one of the best plays I saw in 2010.