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
Move forward a couple of centuries and, for the next play, the audience finds itself in 19th century London, bookended by two short scenes that take place in Poland some 30 years later. Red Velvet is currently playing at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn. Written by Lolita Chakrabarti and starring her husband Adrian Lester (Mickey of Hustle fame) it tells the story when the legendary English actor Edmund Kean is taken ill and his role as Othello is taken over by a black American actor, Ira Aldridge; his style is considerably more avant garde than that of the English cast, with their ‘teapot’ acting techniques (imagine the item and then the comparable actor’s stance), with the majority of the cast using this as a ready-made excuse to display their prejudices. And all this is set against the background of the Abolition of Slavery Act. Despite the efforts of the radical French producer of the play, the English press is clearly not ready for this, and as a result of damning criticism of the play and his acting style, Aldridge never appears on the London stage again. A final note: Lester will be taking on the role of Othello at London’s National Theatre next spring.
The final play I’m writing about is This House at the National Theatre. It’s currently showing at the flexible Cottesloe space with the downstairs seats arranged as in the House of Commons. The play tells of the five years of knife-edge Labour government between 1974 and 1979 – knife-edge because with wafer thin majorities, they only hung on by the skin of their teeth and by ferrying in ‘walking wounded’ and those almost at death’s door for crucial votes. The main focus is on the whips’ office, a topical subject in the ‘pleb-gate’ context, and the wheeler-dealer shennanigans necessary to retain power. As with so many productions at the Cottesloe, it’s currently sold out; however, the good news is that it’s transferring to the large Olivier stage at the National in the new year.
Readers familiar with my contributions to In Balance magazine will know I’m not the greatest fan of formal, expensive West End plays, nor of the plethora of crowd-pleading musicals that come and go. So as usual, I have been spreading my theatre-going activity amongst the smaller stages of the London’s fringe theatres.
New venues pop up from time to time, and it was one of these, that had albeit been in existence for a little while unbeknown to me, that I visited recently. It’s the New Diorama Theatre, tucked just off the busy Euston Road in Regent’s Place, a new development of offices and housing which has a pleasant village-like feel about it. I was pleased to learn from the charming members of staff there that there is a statutory obligation to include a community space in such new developments, which is how the theatre came into being. It has, of course, a cafe cum snack restaurant which hits all the right modern buttons, lots of organic stuff, herbal teas and sausages made from happy free-ranging pigs!
But back to the theatre. The production I saw was Waxing Lyrical, the story of Marie Tussaud, a one-woman show featuring Judith Paris who I have watched performing other such shows in the past about different women, each one mesmerizing. This tale of the enterprising wax-worker from Switzerland, to France and the revolution of 1789 and beyond, and then to her life in England was both informative and entertaining.
On to the Soho Theatre in Dean Street to see the excellent adaption of Chris Mullin MP’s diaries entitled: A Walk On Part – The Fall of New Labour. Another excellent evening out, with a very talented actor taking the part of the writer, and four others playing a total of 96 parts! Not quite an impressions show, but close sometimes; you have to commend an actor who can bring Tony Blair, Tony Benn and Denis Skinner (among others) to the stage, all of them quite convincingly!
Finally that week, to one of my favourite local venues, the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, to see one of their admirable verbatim plays, The Riots. Again, with actors playing several parts each, including politicians, this was not just a worthy exercise but a truly engrossing evening presenting, as they used to say on a now-forgotten US television show ‘just the facts, man’. The Tricycle is not always so serious and worthy, though. They are currently reviving their excellent Stones In Their Pockets, and bringing a new Alan Ayckbourn to their stage in the spring – Neighbourhood Watch runs from 10 April to 5 May.
Needless to say, tickets for all the above productions were very good value for money; and the average for a concessionary ticket was around £10.
And now to an apology. I wrote recently in the pages of this magazine of my outrage at the increase of ticket prices at the newly refurbished Swiss Cottage Odeon, just weeks after its opening. I have since discovered that I was wrong to condemn them thus, but not entirely. It seems that they have adopted the most complicated of ticket pricing systems. So there are indeed relatively cheap seats still, dependent on the time of day, the film you want to see and which of the many screens it’s playing in. But it seems that for the majority of films, the price is quite out of proportion to a simple visit to the cinema; I’m not talking about the live performances of opera or theatre, which, though I have yet to see one, will obviously benefit enormously from the great technological advances the cinema boasts of, but of relatively ubiquitous films that could be viewed at a cinema down the road for almost half the price.
Call me old-fashioned, but I do get a bit fed up with the amounts of choice we have these days. I find it confusing enough to have to choose utility suppliers or simply a type of coffee in a cafe; I’d just like to go to my local cinema and know that all the films in all the screens are the same price!
Jeannette Nelson, Arts 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.