David Lister: Can't stand the heat? Lower the price

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The Independent Online

Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group has admitted that people are having to walk out of Oliver! at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, because it is "insufferably hot" in the balcony.

The group has put in an application to Westminster Council to install an air-conditioning system in the listed building, and in support of this application it has detailed the appallingly hot conditions and the fact that there are "regular demands for refunds". The levels of hot air are "unbearable", the application says.

Lord Lloyd-Webber and Really Useful Group executives seem to have been happy to let the press know about all this, presumably as it will help their application if the "unbearable" heat levels are made public.

"Unbearable", "insufferably hot". These are surely intolerable conditions to allow theatregoers to endure. At the very least the Really Useful Group should have made the balcony free or a token fiver. So what is the price that it is charging? It is £30. Yep, £30 to sit in an atmosphere that the theatre owners themselves admit is "unbearable".

Now that to me is both insufferable and unbearable. How can theatre owners and managements treat audiences in this way? Yes, we know that you are about to sit in unbearable conditions, but we are still going to charge you £30 for the privilege.

Generally, when a fuss is made about high ticket prices in the arts, it is the ultra-expensive seats in the stalls that get attention. But a much more serious problem is the way that balcony prices have crept up. It is in "the gods" that young people and new audiences traditionally have their first taste of theatre. And these seats need to be cheap to keep on attracting those people. Theatre makes all the right noises about wanting these new audiences, but too often forgets that those very audiences are alienated by prices and discomfort in the parts of the auditorium where owners, managers and, yes, critics rarely venture.

A little more thought has to be given to the needs of audiences. It's bad enough that they have to put up with booking fees, "handling" fees and all those other extra charges which rightly infuriate ticket-buyers. It was bad enough that the Royal Shakespeare Company brought the curtain down on performances in Stratford-upon-Avon too late for theatregoers from London to get a train back to the capital. But, after that was highlighted here, the RSC, to its credit, has got together with the rail company to arrange for a late train to come into service this summer. So change can happen when there is sufficient will.

Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Really Useful Group can't just pass the buck to the local council. In no other industry would it be acceptable for the company to say to customers: "Our product will leave you in unbearable and insufferable conditions, but we're going to charge you an expensive sum for it anyway."

Don't forget the parting shot

One good thing about leaving your job is that you can say what you like. Michael Lynch, the departing chief executive of the South Bank Centre, has caused a stir by giving an interview saying business and City leaders who had failed to give money to the arts were "a bunch of bastards". He added in more temperate language: "Corporate Britain in my view has let down the side. They need a sense of values."

This has caused a stir in the arts world. Mr Lynch's successors now have to mount a charm offensive with the City to persuade business leaders to give money. And this week Colin Tweedy, chief executive of Arts & Business, writes in Arts Industry magazine that more respect should be shown to business. But help is at hand. Mr Lynch, an Australian, explains that "in Australia, 'bastards' is a term of endearment". That might persuade potential arts funders. Or it might not.

If you want glamour, get into classical music

An old art house film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, contains a scene I always considered a bit of a nightmare. A group of people are at a dinner party and suddenly a curtain rises and they find they are on stage and an audience is watching them eat.

On Thursday I was the guest of EMI Classics at the Classical Brits at the Royal Albert Hall. Our dinner table, along with about 20 other tables, was in the hall's arena. And for an hour before the show started, a large audience simply watched us eat. Some even had binoculars.

Happily, I was able to forget that bizarre scenario as I was seated alongside the striking trumpeter Alison Balsom, who that evening became the first British musician to win best female artist at the Classical Brits. Miss Balsom is a mesmerising performer. See her if you can. She was also mesmerising to sit by, not least because classical stars now get the Oscars treatment from friendly designers and jewellers at awards ceremonies. She wore a short gold dress for the red carpet by Temperley followed by a quick change into a long, figure-hugging pale grey dress by Armani for her performance. She was also wearing £1m worth of diamonds by Van Cleef & Arpels.

Next time I speak at a careers convention I will advise girls to take up the trumpet.