An affordable night out is just the ticket

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The Independent Online
LAST WEEK I took my three-year-old to see Noddy at a London theatre. Lovely show; she was entranced. But the price would have made the wobbly man wobble over. One-and-a-half tickets for 90 minutes of Enid Blyton, and hardly any change from pounds 20.

And here's something else to give Tessie Bear kittens. This week the Royal Shakespeare Company announced that it had secured a pounds 3.3m sponsorship from Allied Lyons, a notable coup in a recessionary climate. The list of activities the money would be used for was a lengthy one, ranging from education and international touring to a new magazine. Keeping ticket prices down was not on the list.

In that the RSC is not unusual. When it comes to both business sponsorship and, much more important, government subsidy, the price of tickets is never among the top priorities. Both subsidised and commercial managements make all the right noises about increasing access, widening audiences, attracting younger and poorer people to theatre, opera and concerts. Meanwhile, the prices go up and up.

The RSC, for example, has had a marvellous season at Stratford-upon-Avon. But for a family of four to go there, have a meal and see a show is, in the words of its artistic director, Adrian Noble, not going to leave much change from pounds 100. How many times a year can one do that?

In London and, indeed, all around the country, theatre is pricing itself out of the market. With the cheapest seats in commercial theatres often starting at about pounds 12 - without the additional booking fees that are fast becoming the norm - well-off, middle- class theatregoers are rationing their outings. Youngsters will simply choose the cinema instead.

And the price of a seat is not the end of the matter. Programmes are rarely less than pounds 1 and at Covent Garden can go up to pounds 5. Interval drinks and ice-creams are increasingly a rip-off. At one London theatre I encountered my first pounds 2 tub. When I took this up with the theatre administrator he countered that he was shocked, had been unaware of it and had nothing to do with the catering, which was done by an outside firm.

A foolish attitude. Eating and drinking are a part of the night's experience, and no theatre manager should ignore that side of affairs as being outside his or her artistic concern. Yet I've found that almost all do. (And while we're about it, let's not stick to the high arts here. Wembley Arena, the venue for rock concerts and many other events, charges pounds 6 just to use the car park.)

One imaginative West End producer, Andrew Leigh at the Old Vic, recently admitted to me that prices were too high and that he and his colleagues tended to charge what they thought the market could bear. 'Other businesses,' he reflected, 'figure out what it costs to make their product and then add on a percentage for profit. In other words, some small-cast West End plays could be charging as little as pounds 10 a ticket.'

It is a rare piece of honesty in a sea of hypocrisy. Why cannot theatre producers, who are forever saying they want to see more young people in the theatre, charge half-price for youngsters as cinemas do? Before they answer that their books simply wouldn't balance, why can they not at least start by offering such a reduction on Monday nights, when the theatres are half-empty anyway?

Even in the subsidised sector reductions for youngsters are offered only sporadically, and with little consistency. You can sometimes, but not always, obtain a reduced-price family ticket for the RSC, but youngsters booking on their own do not get a reduction. Those who are not economics students but can still manage to understand the National Theatre's labyrinth of reduction offers will find that students and schoolchildren, whose teachers have not made them card-carrying associates of the theatre, must turn up on the night and try to buy a standby ticket if they want a reduction. They cannot book in advance and get cheap seats as they can at most cinemas.

Adults, too, are being priced out of the market and are going to theatre, opera and concerts less.

What we need is a national ticket pricing policy, something the strategy documents in the arts in recent years have singularly ignored. Such a policy would say that keeping the price of seats affordable should be the first priority. In other words, part of the annual grants from the Government and Arts Council should be 'earmarked' simply to keep seat prices down. What happens at the moment is the worst of all worlds. When the big companies receive their grants - usually less then they ask for - the artistic programmes are already in place and cannot be altered. The only movable feast is self-generated income, most obviously the box-office receipts. Ticket prices always end up expanding to make up the difference between the grant and the cost of running the company. Ticket prices are the last thing to be addressed when everything else is sorted.

But what if they were the first thing? What if seat prices were considered separately, as one of the most crucial parts of running a company and subject to a separate grant?

In the case of business sponsorship, what better advertising profile could businesses have than one which showed they were helping the public by keeping prices down. Every ticket could carry a logo and a slogan. Yet Sir Roy Shaw, the former Arts Council secretary- general, who has just written an illuminating book entitled The Spread of Sponsorship, says: 'If sponsors really are keen to develop accessibility, finding ways of keeping ticket prices down would be a very good idea and a very good use of sponsors' money, yet I've never seen anything to suggest that happens, apart from one-off prom weeks.'

Let ticket prices be the chief concern of every arts organisation this year. At least one day a week, all under-18s should be able to go at half-price, building up an interest in the audience of the future. The box office should have first call on a company's public subsidy, even if it means a production or two less a year. And sponsors should target some of their pounds 59m a year in the same direction.

In simple language, an evening out at the theatre shouldn't cost more than pounds 30 per couple or pounds 40 per family, otherwise audiences will simply cut their visits down to two or three times a year. That smashing production of Noddy attracted only a tiny audience. High prices that keep the public at bay are the economics of toytown.

Matthew Symonds is unwell.

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