THE DRIVING FORCE

The West End has three main kinds of customer: Londoners, tourists, and coach parties. It's the third of these who decide whether a show will be a smash. Last weekend Robert Butler joined the Theatregoers Club of Great Britain in search of a grand day
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The Independent Culture
SOME PEOPLE leave the city at weekends and head for the seaside, others leave the seaside and head for the city. It's quarter to nine on a blustery Saturday morning in Walton-on-the-Naze, Essex. Sandpipers whizz along the beach. Seagulls hang in the sky. The sun glints off the waves. On the deserted promenade Gordon and Trish Waller board a coach for London. He sticks a sign in the corner of the windscreen. "Theatregoers Club of Great Britain".

Think of five reasons why you don't go to the theatre. Ticket prices are too high. Booking is a bore. A good baby-sitter is hard to find. The last thing you saw was terrible. Getting there and finding somewhere to park is hell. Then think of the 21,000 members of the Theatregoers Club of Great Britain.

They get their tickets bought for them and they get them at lower prices. The branch secretaries see shows first and recommend them to their members. The coach picks them up from a point near their home - which means, if they are nervous, that they can sit in their car in the car-park until the very moment the coach arrives and a face appears that they recognise. Then, after the show, it brings them back. The only problem that leaves is the baby-sitter. Glance at the powdered faces, bifocals and balding heads on the Theatregoers coach, and, well, that's not pressing.

Walton-on-the-Naze is the first stop, Frinton-on-Sea the second. A dozen people are waiting, neatly wrapped in macs and anoraks, scarves and cardigans. "Morning ladies!" says Gordon, hopping off the coach with a smile. "Nice to see you again!" He whips off the elastic band and hands out envelopes with tickets and an itinerary. This is a split trip. Some people are going to Sunset Boulevard, others to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. "No rush, no hurry."

Gordon is secretary of the Clacton, Frinton and Walton branch of the Theatregoers Club. There are 90 branches and this is one of the newest. It's only been going a couple of months and Gordon, who is one of only four male secretaries, has already recruited 220 members. Setting up a branch involves putting an ad in the local paper, holding a coffee morning and appointing a secretary. The members of the Clacton, Walton and Frinton branch are in safe hands. Gordon was a detective-inspector in the CID, so he's dealt with murder, rape, drugs, the lot. "The situations I've had to deal with," he says, later. "But I get nervous about organising the coffee. I like them to have a good time."

Theatregoers journey in from all over southern England and the Midlands: from Weston-Super-Mare, Gwent, Milton Keynes, and Solihull. Forget Sam Mendes, Nicholas Hytner and Declan Donnellan (forget the critics, too). The driving force in British theatre is the luxury coach. Last year the West End took £215m at the box office. It's the people who travel in by coach - the silent, well, murmuring majority - who decide whether a show will be mega.

After Frinton-on-Sea, the coach stops at Holland-on-Sea. There are empty benches, empty car-parks and new-mown grass. In winter, says the man in the seat behind, "we make our own entertainment". Or travel 75 miles to find it. After Holland-on-Sea, the coach stops at Clacton. Two adults, a mother and her daughter, head for the back of the coach. They discovered last time that if you sit by the emergency exit you get more leg room. "One more couple then we're off," says Gordon. He's put in an extra stop at Great Clacton. With 43 theatregoers on board, Gordon tests the microphone. "Hello, everybody, for those of you who don't know me ..."

The thing about the Theatregoers Club - whose chairman is the producer, Sir Eddie Kulukundis, and whose president is his wife, the actress Susan Hampshire - is that much of the work is done by branch secretaries. Although they get free trickets and a commission on new members, they're not paid. They do it for love.

The branch secretaries write newsletters for love; they organise cheese and wine parties for love; and what they love most is to find out what it is that their members love. Funnily enough, that's easy. The members love the sort of show that is advertised on the back of a bus. Cameron's shows, Andrew's shows, shows with logos.

The Theatregoers go to straight plays too, so long as they have TV stars and really are straight. There was little call for Me and Mamie O'Rourke when word got out that Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French shared a kiss. They aren't keen on "language" either, though they did enjoy Piaf, which surprised head office because "it's got 45 `f***s' ". It also had Elaine Paige.

The 87 playwrights who wrote to the Guardian complaining about the lack of support for new writing might learn something about modern audiences if they travelled on the coach. The Theatregoers Club do go to new plays. They go to Sisters Rosensweig, Three Tall Women and What a Performance. But it's not the novelty that pulls them in. Rather the opposite: they like a familiar face. Maureen Lipman in Sisters Rosensweig, Maggie Smith in Three Tall Women, David Suchet in What a Performance.

After Gordon has introduced Trish and himself he asks everyone to shake hands with those around. The coach erupts with introductions: "Hello, I'm Gladys," "Hello, I'm Stella." When the excitement subsides there is a buzz of explanations about where they live, how convenient that is for the pick-up point, and whether this is their first, second or third trip.

The driver has got hold of the microphone and points out sights. The coach is full of locals, so some people don't think it is necessary to be told that on the left is the new Tesco's.

Still, it cheers up a grim morning. It's raining as the coach pulls on to the A12 and everything looks grey: grey sky, grey road, grey seats, grey hair, grey flannels, and - in the seat opposite - a grey shawl. A perfect day for the theatre. When the coach reaches the Strand and the Adelphi it brightens up: red neon lights, red carpets, red curtains, red seats, gold banisters and dappled marble pilasters. And there's a show, too.

THE MEMBERS of the Theatregoers Club are mainly women (many of them widows). They tend to live in detached houses and off disposable income. When interest rates are high, so is their interest in the theatre. In socio-economic terms they are Bs. In demographic terms they live in clusters: which makes it useful for pick-up and drop-off points. In marketing terms they're a target group with a clear profile. In short, if you're a single, retired heterosexual man, who feels relaxed in the company of people from socio-economic group B, why waste time? Join now.

A day-trip such as this one offers plenty of informal opportunities to chat. After the handshakes the next event is the "comfort stop". Today's is at Brentford. Hearts sink when the Little Chef looms into view, but the coach passes that (and, another sigh of relief, the Post House too) and stops at the Marygreen Manor Hotel. Gordon goes in to check that the coffee and selection of chocolate biscuits are ready. When he returns he tells the group where to find the "little boys' room and the little girls' room".

Coffee is in a Tudor reception room with oak beams and panels and an open fireplace. Conversation is relaxed.

"What a lovely day it started out to be."

"The weather doesn't look so strong now."

Joining the Theatregoers Club - at an annual fee of £22 - is the same as subscribing to a 24-hour weather service.

After coffee it's back on the coach, through Docklands towards Fleet Street and lunch at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. It's still raining and one man would like to stretch his legs. "There's a lot of sitting. Sitting on the coach. Sitting down to eat. Sitting in the theatre." Gordon returns to the coach after checking out the room where the group will eat. He apologises for the fact that there will be quite a few narrow steps to climb.

The meal takes place in the Johnson Room - where Dr Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Charles Dickens and "many other well-known characters" have sat and dined. The group sit in wooden bays with high-backed church pews. Maybe it's the pews that are responsible for the stickinesss of the conversation. Or maybe it's the number of plates that are crashing in the kitchen. A waitress asks if anyone would like a drink.

"I'm happy with water, thank you."

"Slimline tonic."

"Half a lager."

"Wine with a splash of soda."

Gordon had been told that the menu would be chicken casserole. It turns out to be steak-and-kidney pudding. It's fine, though; and there's nothing wrong with the potatoes that boiling them wouldn't solve. The woman next to me is an angel. She is a member of another theatre club which encourages people to invest. She lost money on the first investment (Carmen Jones) but has nearly broken even on the second (spread between several shows, including Carousel). A dedicated theatregoer, when she gets back tonight she hopes to catch the second act of a local production. She's seen it once already.

There's quite a party atmosphere by 2pm when Gordon announces it's time for the theatre.

"Don't fall asleep, will you?"

"I know, it's very tempting to shut your eyes and have a doze."

Outside the sun is shining.

"It's turned out just right."

IT IS dark after the show and the audience pours out on to the Aldwych, Catherine Street and the Strand. There are coaches everywhere. In the Aldwych, coaches are double-parked from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie all the way up to An Inspector Calls.

The Theatregoers group look out for the Supreme. They can see Dover's and Andy's and Bassett's and Wainfleet and Price International and Kingfisher and Deluxe Europa and Luckett's Travel and Repton's Coaches and Reliant of Ibstock and Barnes Travel and Armchair and Park's and Empress and P&J Ellis and - there! tucked in by Ma Miller's caf - the Supreme. The neon lights of Miss Jean Brodie are reflected in its windscreen. There, on the coach steps, is Gordon's welcoming face.

Inside the coach Gordon blows into the microphone again. The play was excellent, he hears, unlike Sunset Boulevard. "I didn't think that was anything special. Trish comes down the stairs like that every morning." That gets a laugh. Gordon announces that the coach will take us to see the Christmas lights. Applause. Two women lean across the aisle and discuss what they saw. Here is theatre criticism at its most unaffected. After a while they realise they went to different shows.

The lights in Regent Street don't depict reindeer or Father Christmas, but they look familiar. Each set of lights carries the logo of a show produced by Cameron Mackintosh or written by Andrew Lloyd Webber. By some oversight the lighting designer has forgotten to put illuminated phone numbers for credit-card bookings and group sales. The Theatregoers are subdued.

"What's the next one? Cats?"

"I should think so with those yellow eyes."

"They're not Christmas really."

The coach crawls back down the Strand while Gordon moves down the aisle, rather more briskly, with a basket of boiled sweets. "Would you like to wet your whistle?"

"You spoil us, you know." says the woman across the aisle.

Her husband looks at the crowd milling outside Sunset Boulevard.

"We're just in time for the evening performance."

"I like these," says his wife, "they've a soft centre."

Her husband suddenly coughs and turns the colour of her lipstick. She hits him on the back. Thump, thump, thump. "Do you want me to keep going?" He nods. Thump, thump, thump. He sits motionless, waiting for the centre to soften. Thump, thump, thump. Thump, thump, thump. Till then it had all been so painless. !

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