David Lister: The stage is set for new audiences

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The Independent Online

The other day I stood in the ladies' lavatory of a West End theatre with Sir Cameron Mackintosh, and admired his handiwork. Sir Cameron has been lovingly restoring the theatres he owns, the most recent being the Wyndham's, and increasing the number of ladies' loos has been a priority. He has also smartened them up. I will be demanding equal rights for the Gents.

I was more impressed, though, by the changes to the Upper Circle, the "cheap" seats, where young and new audiences tend to get their first taste of theatre. This now has its own entrance, and the benches have been replaced by comfortable seats.

Finding those new audiences is essential. And this week Sir Cameron's efforts were enhanced by two other initiatives. At the National Theatre, artistic director Nicholas Hytner started Sunday performances, a massive change to the cultural landscape, but one that had to happen to put theatre in line with concerts and movies. The other initiative came from Culture Secretary Andy Burnham, who is giving £2.5m to fund free theatre tickets for people under the age of 26.

As someone who has campaigned in this paper for theatre tickets to be cheaper to bring in a younger audience, I have to applaud this, even if the scheme does raise such questions as how exactly this will be achieved, how the £2.5m a year translates into one million theatre tickets, and, as his scheme applies only to subsidised theatres, how we get new audiences into the overpriced commercial sector. My own scheme was that all theatre tickets should be sold at cinema prices one night a week. I still believe that adopting that approach week in week out would make more of a difference than Mr Burnham's two-year pilot scheme in the subsidised sector. But at least Mr Burnham is addressing the need of young audiences.

Will he now please address two other factors? First, he must insist that theatres give a little thought about how their audiences get home after the performance. I have highlighted recently the case of the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, whose Hamlet finishes too late to catch the last train. Judging from The Independent letters page, readers seem to be as irritated as I am by that.

And now I have received a missive from the Chichester Festival Theatre which states: "The performance ... starts at 7.45pm and finishes at 10.30pm and so this means that it will not be possible to get back to London by train."

The other factor Mr Burnham must address is television. The number of plays on TV is pitiful. New audiences might be encouraged to sample Kenneth Branagh in Chekhov's Ivanov at Cameron Mackintosh's new theatre, if they had seen a Chekhov play on TV. But when did that last happen?

Poor neglected superstar

Yoko Ono was in the 1960s "an avant-garde superstar". I know this to be true because I have just read it on her website. So I am glad that our leading visual arts jamborees are honouring the superstar. The Frieze Art Fair has invited her to give the keynote lecture. And the Liverpool Biennial is exhibiting her inspiring artwork of a bunch of stepladders in a field.

It's good to see that they have not fallen for the scurrilous gossip that she was actually rather more famous for marrying a Beatle than for her art. The last time I saw her on TV she was talking about "when WE wrote 'Imagine'". On the label of the copy I own, only John Lennon is credited as composer. It is to be hoped that EMI, too, will give an avant-garde superstar proper recognition.

It's a dangerous world out there – for critics

The classical music critic of The Plain Dealer, a newspaper in Cleveland, Ohio, has been moved to other duties after sustained criticism by him of the conductor of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. It has become a national story in the United States with the paper's editor and chairman called on to defend themselves in The New York Times. Apparently the critic in question wrote such damning things as accusing the conductor of giving "a generalised account" of a symphony that "smoothed over the composer's markings".

Shocking! My eye was further caught by the story, because it emerged that the newspaper's publisher also happens to be on the board of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, perhaps not a happy coincidence. Most of all, my eye was caught because the conductor in question is Franz Welser-Möst.

He used to conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra, during which time the critics were so dismissive of him that Private Eye nicknamed him Frankly Worse Than Most.

It's a good thing that British papers aren't as sensitive as The Plain Dealer. There wouldn't be a classical music critic left.