I was reading the National Theatre's annual report in bed, as one does. And it gave me a jolt. The report, which has just been published, contains a valedictory article from Sir Trevor Nunn, who stepped down as artistic director earlier this year. The sentences by Sir Trevor that gave me a start followed his mention of the National's own ticket price reductions. He went on: "But I want to be clear about this 'pricing' issue.
"Ticket price reduction of this dramatic kind is not possible without large-scale sponsorship, and certain arts journalists who persist in proclaiming that 'give-away' prices are the only hope the theatre has for survival are playing a misleading and dangerous game. The only way without sponsorship that prices can be cut is by theatres doing very small cast plays, with cheap designs, and by heavily reducing the wages of actors, technicians and theatre workers generally."
Certain arts journalists! It's diplomatic of Sir Trevor to make me plural; but as I am unaware of any other arts journalists running a year-long campaign for cheaper ticket prices and an end to booking fees and "handling charges", I will hold my hand up and confess to being the certain arts journalists.
I have, though, been a little misquoted. (I'm beginning to sound like Sir Trevor, now.) I have never called for "give-away" prices or for a reduction in ticket prices for every performance. Far from it, Sir Trevor. Those actors, technicians and theatre workers generally can relax. What I have repeatedly urged as the Lister Experiment is that theatres should for just one night a week offer good seats at the price of a West End cinema ticket to attract new, young audiences - the people who go to watch films but do not go to the theatre. What could West End theatres lose by doing this on, say, Monday nights when many theatres are half empty anyway?
Certainly, not every theatre producer shares Sir Trevor's message of doom. Producers such as Thelma Holt and Bill Kenwright offered cheap seats as part of this scheme. And Paul Roberts, the producer of the Queen musical (large cast, expensive designs, Sir Trevor) was not just an early supporter offering best seats for £11.50 on a series of Monday nights; he is now doing the same again for the performance of 2 December, a Tuesday this time, to mark the first anniversary of the Lister Experiment. (Dominion Theatre box office: 0870 169 0116.)
The e-mails that I continue to receive every week convince me just how important price is to theatre-goers, who, unlike arts journalists such as myself and theatre directors such as Sir Trevor, have to pay for their tickets and fume in e-mails to me about price, booking fees and handling charges (levied not just by ticket agencies but gallingly by theatre box offices). Take two I received this week.
One gentleman in Brighton expressed his anger at being told that it was the policy of Brighton's Theatre Royal to charge full price for a restricted view seat, half obstructed by a pillar. Another was appalled that the West End transfer of Jerry Springer the Opera (a National Theatre production, as you know, Sir Trevor) comes with £2.50 booking fee per ticket.
There are two theatre-goers utterly fed up with the theatre, not because of the material on stage but because of issues of price.
How can one possibly defend booking fees charged not per transaction but per ticket? How can one possibly defend "handling charges" often added not for postage but simply because the box office literally handles the ticket? And why do the most distinguished and respected people in theatre never speak out publicly against these charges, which continue to anger theatre-goers. What, I wonder, is the view of one of the most respected, distinguished and brilliant directors of our time, Sir Trevor Nunn?
No, of course "give-away" prices are not the only hope for theatre's survival. I have never suggested anything so fatuous. But reductions once a week to cinema prices, on nights when theatres are desperate for custom, could encourage a new and younger audience. An end to booking fees and "handling charges" could encourage the present audience to go more often. That's the view of this certain arts journalist. And he's sticking to it.
¿ On the subject of the National Theatre, it is no longer the National Theatre; at least not of the United Kingdom. Though it has gone largely unreported south of the border, Scotland is to have its own National Theatre. Funding of £7.5m for a National Theatre of Scotland has been announced. The project will use existing theatres rather than have its own building; but it will be called the National Theatre of Scotland. Nicholas Hytner, director of the other National Theatre, must feel as Queen Mary did when she lost Calais.Reuse content