pounds 75 a ticket? It's crazy, says Branagh

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The Independent Online
ET TU, Brute? You could almost hear this plaintive cry from the theatre world as one of its most famous proteges plunged in the knife.

Kenneth Branagh, the home-spun thespian turned Hollywood superstar, was attacking theatres for being too expensive. Mr Branagh, who incidentally charged National Film Theatre members pounds 13 apiece to hear him speak, said: "My problem with the theatre is economics. I find it frustrating that it costs so much to go and is available to a relatively small number of people."

This hardly comes as a shattering revelation to West End audiences, who pay an average of pounds 21.63 per show, with some seats costing as much as pounds 35. A recent survey revealed that cost deterred almost a fifth of respondents from attending the theatre more often. Earlier this week the Old Vic pushed back the limits by announcing the highest fees ever charged in London theatre: top tickets for Ricky Jay's magic show next month will cost pounds 75.

However, a silent protest is underway amongst audiences, who are refusing to meet the increases. Ticket charges may be going up each year but the average price paid is not rising at the same rate. Theatregoers are just buying lower band or discounted tickets.

The industry is getting wise to such dissent. The annual percentage increase in prices has been falling for years. Whereas charges went up by 15 per cent in 1986 the latest figures show they increased by a mere 1.5 per cent last year.

Whilst sympathetic to complaints of extortionate ticket prices, theatreland is also quick to retort with familiar excuses. Although theatre looks expensive next to its younger celluloid cousin, its fans protest that it still compares favourably with other live activities. Opera prices extend to pounds 55 with key events going for pounds 250. Good seats at a Premiership football match can top pounds 50.

Broadway is also an easy whipping boy. Emma De Souza, of the Society of London Theatre, said: "New York's most expensive tickets are $75 (pounds 47). Their prices have always been significantly higher. Putting on a show in the West End is very costly."

Paul Connolly, of the Theatres Trust, agreed: "There is such a huge investment in productions that it can take many years to recoup the cost. Shows with big casts and scenery can wait a couple of years before they see any profit."

He pointed to The Adelphi's production of Chicago as a possible sign of things to come. "It's using a minimalist stage whilst still putting on a great show. It's part of a trend to wean audiences away from costly productions," he said.

A few valiant attempts are being made to offer theatre at a reasonable cost. Thanks to a subsidy from a business, the Royal Court Theatre, currently residing at the Duke of York's, offers Monday night seats at pounds 5 each. And there will be a late summer drive to attract families by offering free tickets to children in the week beginning 27 August - but only if an adult pays full price, of course.

Nevertheless with 11,924,518 visitors to its theatres last year (the second highest number in history) and Hollywood box office draws such as Nicole Kidman and Kevin Spacey keen to tread the boards for comparatively small fees, the London scene is still buoyant.

And regional theatre provides an inexpensive alternative, with nine million people last year paying an average of pounds 11.80. Even the best seats can be bought for as little as pounds 15 at most regional theatres - with some notable exceptions such as the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, which can demand as much as pounds 39 for admission.

Paul Blackman, artistic director of the Roundhouse, pioneered inventive answers to the problem of high prices, having introduced "Pay What You Can" nights during his time at the Battersea Arts Centre.

"It was very successful. It's better to have 100 per cent paying a third than 30 per cent paying full price. There was a unique atmosphere on those nights and people returned on other nights," he commented.

The cost of London theatre tickets

Theatre Production Cheapest seat Best Seat

RSC A Midsummer pounds 5 pounds 39

Night's Dream

Swan Theatre Volpone pounds 5 pounds 36

Adelphi Chicago pounds 15 pounds 35

Old Vic Amadeus pounds 7.50 pounds 32.50

Phoenix Blood Brothers pounds 11.50 pounds 32.50