David Lister: The Week in Arts

The big-money stars on stage are all women
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The Independent Online

In a discussion on bad taste T-shirts, Alan Bennett once said that the worst taste T-shirt he could imagine was one that said "I hate Judi Dench".

Dame Judi is, of course, a national treasure. And her national treasure status is about to be confirmed in a revival of Noël Coward's Hay Fever, shortly to open at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. The production will set a record for a top price for a straight play in the West End. The best seats will cost £50. Actually I'm less worried about that than the fact that the cheapest seats will be £20; whatever happened to encouraging a new audience to come by keeping the prices in the balcony low?

But back to those £50 seats. Why are they so high, and why will the show nevertheless do very well? The answer, with all respect to Sir Noël, is not a hunger for a light comedy by the Master. The answer is Judi Dench.

Dame Judi, who plays one of the lead roles, is now seen by producers as a dead cert for box-office success, and a reason to raise the prices. I'd say there is less than a handful of British stage actors and actresses who can affect ticket prices in this way. In fact, I'm not even sure there is an actor who can. The big money stars are all women, and all Dames. As well s Dame Judi, there is Dame Maggie Smith certainly, and Dame Diana Rigg, possibly. Dame Diana is in a play in the West End at the moment and top prices for that are £42.50, so she's several quid below Dame Judi. We will have to wait for Dame Maggie's next West End appearance to see if she is priced midway between a Rigg and a Dench or if a Smith can set a £55 record.

Sir Peter Hall, who is directing the revival of Hay Fever, ran the Royal Shakespeare Company when Judi Dench was a fresh-faced actress there about 45 years ago. He has told me that he was aware in the earliest days of the RSC that he had two very promising actresses in the company: Dorothy Tutin and Judi Dench. But, if he had been asked to predict who would be the big star in a few decades' time, he would have said Dorothy Tutin every time. In fact, Miss Tutin, who died a few years ago, never achieved quite the stardom of Dench.

She also has a wonderfully self-deprecating manner. When she was rehearsing Antony and Cleopatra with Anthony Hopkins at the National Theatre in the 1980s, she went over to the director, again Sir Peter Hall, and whispered: "Are you really sure you want a menopausal dwarf to play Cleopatra?"

As it turned out, she was memorable in that role, as she is in every role she plays. She is a marvellous actress, but I still don't quite understand how the special ticket price comes about. There are other fantastic stage performers in Britain, whose presence in a theatre would never automatically mean a record ticket price. Simon Russell Beale and Clare Higgins are two of the finest stage actors in the world today, but no producer would dream of raising prices just because they were performing. And the public would probably have questions to ask if prices were raised because of it.

It takes something indefinably special for theatre-goers to accept a price hike for one performer, and not complain. It needs longevity; it needs national treasure status; it needs an Oscar; and a TV sitcom doesn't harm. Dame Judi has it all in spades. But she's more than a national treasure. Lots of people become national treasures. Dame Judi can cause prices to rise and still guarantee a profit. In the theatre that's better than treasure. It's magic.

Keep out (if you're a critic)

The Pink Panther starring Steve Martin and Beyoncé is at the top of the film charts, despite few reviews. The distributors of the film decided against holding screenings for critics. They are not saying why, but one can only assume that they feared the critics would slaughter it. The few reviews there have been back this up. So, word of mouth, marketing and the Martin and Beyoncé fan bases, rather than critical opinion, must be responsible for bringing in the audiences.

Other movies on release must be wishing they had adopted this strategy. V for Vendetta with Natalie Portman was an enticing prospect until the reviews were published, stinkers virtually every one. And I have little doubt that The Pink Panther "keep critics out" approach will be employed again. The director and cast of The Pink Panther will surely realise that their distributors have not exactly given them a vote of confidence. But the agents and bank managers of the director and cast will assure them they are the best.

* I paid my first visit this week to Sir Cameron Mackintosh's newly restored and renamed Novello Theatre, formerly the Strand Theatre. Sir Cameron has dolled up the auditorium, placing gold-framed mirrors on the walls, which reflect some of the action on stage. The whole place is sparkling and attractive. The one area of controversy is the decision to have no gangway splitting the rows of seats. The rows spread across the auditorium with no break.

Sir Cameron tells me that the actors love this, as they look out on a sea of faces with no artificial parting in the middle. And, certainly, there is a feeling in the audience of being part of a joined-up mass of erudite humanity. But it's also true that a lot more people have to squeeze past a lot more of their fellow spectators than if there were a gangway in the middle. Still, all the bobbing up and down makes theatre-going an aerobic exercise.

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