Our theatres need to clean up their act

The high cost of tickets deters more theatregoers than the possibility of encountering drug addicts

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I feel a very inadequate theatre-goer. I have never been offered drugs in Drury Lane, never been solicited by a prostitute outside the Donmar or punched by a pimp in front of Her Majesty's. After the show I always get home at a reasonable hour. Where have I been going wrong? Apparently the West End of London is a nest of filth, squalor and degradation, preventing honest, decent citizens from patronising the capital's playhouses. And those who do venture into London's badlands may never get home again, if the voices of doom from theatreland are to be believed.

I feel a very inadequate theatre-goer. I have never been offered drugs in Drury Lane, never been solicited by a prostitute outside the Donmar or punched by a pimp in front of Her Majesty's. After the show I always get home at a reasonable hour. Where have I been going wrong? Apparently the West End of London is a nest of filth, squalor and degradation, preventing honest, decent citizens from patronising the capital's playhouses. And those who do venture into London's badlands may never get home again, if the voices of doom from theatreland are to be believed.

Howard Panter, the head of the Ambassador theatre group, which runs 10 theatres, says: "We now have to employ people to keep the front of our theatres free of piss basically, which is kind of dull for a business that is supposed to be uplifting. Everyone knows that London has to do what [Rudolph] Giuliani did for New York."

Other theatre owners and senior figures support Mr Panter. They include Andre Ptaszynski, Lord Lloyd-Webber's right-hand man at the Really Useful Group, and Richard Pulford, chief executive of the Society of London Theatre. Mr Pulford cites traffic and transport; Mr Ptaszynski bemoans the lack of a single authority, so he must negotiate with different councils, transport and police bodies. Drama critics such as Charles Spencer talk of "groups of marauding youf out on the booze".

Actually, the nearest thing to violence in the West End that I have encountered recently was when my friend Mr Spencer let forth a volley of anger at the house manager of the Gielgud Theatre for refusing to allow him in with a cappuccino purchased outside the theatre.

I'm with Mr Spencer on that one. It is the many off-putting rules introduced by theatre managements that put people off attending, not the state of the West End. Personally, I would like a Rudy Giuliani-style zero tolerance about the use of booking fees on tickets, which West End theatres have introduced. My own mailbag bulges with complaints about this, and not one complaint about West End squalor. Yet owners and producers never mention public intolerance of booking fees. I wonder why.

The high cost of tickets is also a problem that deters more theatre-goers than does the possibility of encountering drug addicts. Mr Panter's sleep does not seem to be troubled by that either. I am passionate about getting more people into the theatre. Last year I introduced the Lister experiment, in which some far-seeing producers offered tickets for performances at cinema prices. I talked to several of the people that formed this new audience. Not one mentioned the state of the West End. All mentioned how high prices had kept them away. Perhaps lower prices would even tempt some of the "marauding youf" off the booze.

Indeed, what adverse comments I did get about the experience from new and old attenders concerned their experiences inside, not outside, the theatre. The bars were crowded; there were not enough toilets; programmes and drinks were obscenely expensive. Anything to say on that Mr Panter, Mr Pulford, Mr Ptaszynski?

I'm not, of course, saying that it wouldn't be better to have a cleaner West End, without beggars and drunks, easier parking and, most of all, a clean, safe Tube or train to take you home. And, yes, a single overriding London authority with a leader who cared about the arts might achieve these things. But for theatre professionals to blame those factors rather than their own failings is pretty rich.

The West End of London can be intimidating; but I find walking round Soho vibrant and exciting rather than frightening. If restaurants are full and the traffic along Shaftesbury Avenue is at a crawl, then those are the signs of a successful, prosperous city, not a down-at-heel one.

Besides, theatres with good productions will fill seats, whatever the state of the surrounding area. Few areas were less appetising than Waterloo in the Sixties, or even now. Yet people slept on the streets in sleeping bags to buy tickets when Laurence Olivier ran the National Theatre at the Old Vic nearly 40 years ago. And productions regularly sell out in the NT's own building in Waterloo today.

Even in the West End, attendances for last year look set to top the 12 million mark for the first time. So there doesn't seem to be too overwhelming a fear of the capital.

Yes, it would be good to see even more people going to the theatre, particularly people who can't afford to go at present. But to achieve that we don't need to tackle the drug pushers or drunks. What does need to be addressed is the problem of high prices, booking fees, overpriced programmes and drinks, and, too often, inferior product. Put your own house in order, Mr Panter. It's not the state of the streets that stop people coming to the theatre. It's the state of your industry.

d.lister@independent.co.uk

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