Thelma Holt: Noises Off

Theatre is an event, not a luxury, and each high-priced ticket subsidises cheaper seats
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The Independent Online

Cameron Mackintosh, producer of the forthcoming West End production of Oliver!, is considering the idea of charging £95 for premium tickets. Inevitably, this has prompted people to bleat about how exclusive the theatre is. But this is not true.

Far from being exclusive, charging people more money for certain tickets is one way of ensuring that theatres can remain accessible to all, and that some seats can be subsidised. Without a proportion of theatregoers paying more money, it simply wouldn't be possible to have cheaper seats.

You will always find that people talk about theatre being exclusive. That, I'm afraid, is based on ignorance. Students, pensioners, the disadvantaged – there are substantial discounts for all these people. Those paying £95 a ticket are making this possible. That seems to me very just.

The truth is that the costs of putting on a musical of the scale and quality of Oliver! are enormous. Yes, the price of theatre tickets has gone up over the years. But in the West End, costs have increased alarmingly in the past 20 years. Any investor in the theatre who has seen pre-show budgets will be able to guarantee that the cost of putting on a show in the West End has gone up: rents are higher, bills are higher, the cost of set-building is higher, but the major increase is in the cost of manpower. At the moment, the actors' union, Equity, is in discussions with the Society of London Theatre over wages for actors, technicians and costumiers, which have remained shockingly low for too long.

The thing we seem to be ignoring is that there are two forms of theatre in London, and there isn't another place in the world that has such a fine balance. The commercial theatre has to stand on its own two feet. The subsidised theatre is subsidised by the British public. It is the greatest value for money.

We have every reason to be proud of what is happening in London at the moment. The subsidised theatre – led at the moment by the RSC – is fantastic value. These tickets are cheap. Every time you buy a £10 seat in a subsidised house, the fact that we have – it is to be hoped – paid our income tax is reflected in the price. We haven't actually bought any tickets for £10. We have already made a contribution towards the low price.

In the case of Cameron Mackintosh, he has already proved that he is pouring money back into his theatres. Greed is not an issue here. He could simply fill the house, run to the bank, and not stop to ensure the lavatories work. But he invests huge amounts of money in his theatres, making sure they are nice places to be in. He wants people to have a pleasurable experience.

Of course, he is a businessman – but with taste. And he has proved that he loves the business he's in. He could make a lot more money than he does by not paying any regard to the quality of London's theatres. He could have cheaper seats and spend much less on the facilities he offers and what he puts on stage. He could do a tacky musical. Well, anyone of my generation will know what a tacky musical looks like. The young don't know quite how ghastly a tacky musical can be. A dying seaside resort in winter looks like the Bahamas compared with a lousy musical. You need a lot of money to make a good one.

We don't want to do bad cheap and tacky theatre. The audience for a musical now expects modern technology. We have it and they expect to enjoy it. They want fantastic costumes, lighting, and sets; they want an occasion. I have over the years seen three productions of Oliver!. Every time you see this particular musical, you are entitled to a new experience. It's got to be something to make it worth going. Each production has the potential to be the greatest yet. So who's complaining if somebody has to pay a bit more? The rest will still get in and we can all share the pleasure.

The theatre is an event. It is not a luxury; it is an event. It's a part of our lives. It is a celebration. That is why it's so frightful when it doesn't work. So we are willing to spend a little more, those of us that can, provided you get value for your money.

London is full of things you can see for £10. You can go to the Roundhouse, the Donmar, the Almeida. And all of these are a joyous experience. We should celebrate how proud we are of that. That's our money. That's taxpayers' money. But Oliver! is a one-off, and seeing it should be something special. It is not going to set a precedent for all theatre prices to go up. If there was a new Pinter with a mega-star in it from America and it was going to sell out, I would say it was obscene if the tickets cost £90, and I would want no part of it. The motivation behind the pricing of big shows such as Oliver! is to provide the public with fine work. We shouldn't criticise it, we should be proud of it.

Thelma Holt, a former actress, is now a theatre producer whose credits include RSC productions

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