Money doesn't buy you good theatre

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The Independent Online

If you want an object lesson in the aesthetic consequences of the profit motive you could do worse than book tickets for Francis Veber's farce See U Next Tuesday, currently playing at the Albery Theatre in London. The play itself is a modest affair, though a huge hit in France both on stage and on screen under the title Le Dîner de Cons. This is a reference to the hobby of the chief character, a smug Parisian publisher who attends regular dinners at which he and his friends compete to see who can bring the most boring guest. On the evening on which the play takes place, Pierre has come up with François - an accountant who has a passion for matchstick model-making. But he hasn't reckoned with François's sweetly guileless capacity for causing havoc, which steadily escalates through the evening. It is a comedy of the biter bit, and it depends absolutely on a sense of ratcheting panic, as each attempt to put right François's accidental blunders brings on a fresh catastrophe.

There was something of a cold start on the evening I saw the play, but then the audience relaxed a little, stopped worrying about the deeply implausible plot, and the strange compound interest of theatrical laughter began to build, so that every successful gag made the following one more likely to succeed. At precisely this point, the lights came up and the audience was despatched to the depressing ruck of the West End interval. The effect was rather similar to taking a soufflé out of the oven halfway through its cooking time and hitting it with a baseball bat. It's possible my own reaction was exacerbated by an ill-tempered scrum in the Stalls Bar, but as we sat down for the ludicrously short second half, it seemed to me that I wasn't alone in feeling that the air had gone out of the thing. The interval had effectively ruined the play - and the only possible justification for it was commercial avarice. Without an interval, a theatre's bar takings drop considerably, and the producers had, as they are perfectly entitled to do, put profit before art.

That evening came back to me when I read about the Theatres Trust's report this week, suggesting that West End theatres would need a quarter of a billion pounds of investment over the next 15 years to bring them up to scratch. According to the report, the most common complaints from theatregoers were lack of space in the bars and lavatories, poor legroom and bad sightlines. I'm not sure how this survey was conducted, but it seemed a little surprising that the price of tickets, the swingeing mark-ups at the theatre bar and the quality of the productions themselves did not seem to have crossed the minds of the Trust's respondents. The implication was that the West End's problems are largely to do with the distressed fabric of the buildings and very little to do with the way in which they are run. What's more, the solution to this was not to come from the commercial managements who run the theatres for a profit, but from "government or other outside agencies".

You can hardly blame them for trying, I suppose, and there are good arguments for saying that some of these historic buildings are part of the national patrimony. But that the report should concentrate on legroom and lavatory provision, rather than on more significant elements of the West End experience, seems telling to me. The correlation between comfort and theatrical excellence is hardly an uncomplicated one. Some of the best nights I've spent in the theatre were in auditoriums that felt as if they'd been designed by Torquemada and, as audiences annually prove at the Edinburgh Festival and in London's fringe theatres, we are prepared to put up with steerage conditions if there's at least a promise of first-class theatre. The suggestion that improvements should be funded by a "levy on theatre tickets" was a little rich, too. Theatre tickets can't pay levies - only theatregoers can, and they are unlikely to find the idea appealing when West End prices are already prohibitively high and when a visit to a theatre bar leaves you feeling as if you've been mugged at the point of a corkscrew. Generally speaking, going to the West End is an ordeal - not because it's overcrowded and you have to queue for the loos (though you do), but because the gap between expenditure and expectation is often yawningly wide.

Nicholas Hytner, Artistic Director at the National Theatre, has a very different set of problems, and a very different set of solutions available to him. But he has already proved one point in his short term in office, and it's one that commercial managements should be looking at carefully. The £10 Travelex Season at the Olivier Theatre has not just been artistically successful; it has also found genuinely new audiences. About a third of those who bought the cheaper tickets for Henry V were making their first ever visit to the theatre. You can't help but hope that as they walked away they were not talking about the upholstery or the sanitary ware. This paper's Lister Experiment - which aims to offer West End theatre tickets at cinema prices - has also shown that new seat prices might be more effective than new seats. If West End managements could show a similar degree of imagination in wooing audiences, they might find the means to repair their essential plant themselves - and going to their theatres would feel less like a Dîner de Cons in which we're the butt of the joke.