Champagne playgoers discover a new art form

David Lister samples a scheme to give audiences the VIP touch at £100 a seat

"Good evening sir and madam,'' said the man in the foyer, dressed ostentatiously in red coat and tails. "My name is David and I am your butler for the evening.''

This must be the moment when theatre moves from being an art form to being part of the society calendar. When ushers become butlers. My wife and I were sampling going to the theatre as VIPs, a service offered by Stoll Moss Theatres, which means a sizeable chunk of the west end. Cheap it isn't. £100 a ticket it is. But boy, do you enjoy the show. Not that the show has to be good. After several glasses of champagne, canapes and smoked salmon, then more glasses of champagne, your critical faculties are nicely dulled.

As it happens, this show was good, Andrew Lloyd Webber's swirling gothic musical of The Phantom Of The Opera at Her Majesty's Theatre. It's a show that can make the VIP room in the interval unpredictable. Recently the Queen of Sweden entered, hair in a mess, clothes dishevelled. Her bodyguards had mistaken the coup de theatre at the end of the first act, when a chandelier crashes from the ceiling above the auditorium on to the stage, as an assassination attempt - and leapt on her.

Our evening as VIPs was less eventful but it will make queueing at the box office seem pretty infra dig in future.

It started 45 minutes before curtain-up, when David ushered us past the occasional stare into the Royal Retiring Room, a round, red-carpeted, gold and velvet piece of exclusivity. It can take up to 32 VIPs but on our evening we were the only two present so we could stretch out on a luxurious sofa each. David opened the champagne, gave us programmes and souvenir brochures and chatted about the show, the cast, the front of house and the play he was writing. He was of course an actor resting, and was playing the role of butler with aplomb.

David waited until the audience was seated so that we could make a VIP entrance. "You'll find people will look at you wondering if you're from EastEnders,'' he warned. He deposited us in the third row of the stalls and assured us he would be waiting at the interval.

This was the part I rather enjoyed, having a panjandrum to walk ahead and clear a path through the increasingly baffled coach parties to the Royal Retiring Room. Then more champagne. I was about to leave to find a gents. David looked aghast. "You have your own private bathroom, sir.'' My turn to be aghast. Did being a VIP include a bubble bath in the interval. "Sorry, sir, I'm too used to speaking to Americans.'' It was a lavatory, but red-carpeted and for our exclusive use.

This time, for real dramatic effect, he didn't lead us back to our seats until the orchestra had started up. At the end of the show David took us back for after-show coffee and mints. And when it was time to go we still did not have to mingle with hoi polloi. A door from the Royal Retiring Room leads straight on to the street.

The VIP service is used not just by VIPs but for silver weddings, by affluent tourists and businesses entertaining clients. With a stalls ticket for Phantom costing £30 and another £70 for champagne and finger rolls it is an expensive evening, but a memorable one. And for another £20 you can have a full-scale meal after the show.

Stoll Moss offers the VIP service at its 11 theatres, though it was curtailed for a time at the Cambridge Theatre when Jim Davidson's adult pantomime Sinderella was enlivened by champagne-fuelled pantomime in the stalls.

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