Golden tickets: High prices are deterring the audiences that theatre needs


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It is perfectly true that many fans of the veteran comedian Mel Brooks are likely to be well-heeled. Nevertheless there is something disquieting about top-price tickets costing £500 for his one-night show later this month in London. It makes the Royal Opera House seem like a cheap night out.

The producers who are staging the Mel Brooks night would no doubt argue that he is simply charging what the market can bear. But the likelihood of a new generation being introduced to a master of comedy is slim at these prices.

While this is an outlandish example, it illustrates a wider problem in theatre. Producers, actors, directors and owners continually cry out for new, younger audiences, yet appear to have no qualms about alienating them with unaffordable seats, allied to ubiquitous booking fees.

The Independent’s arts editor, David Lister, has long campaigned against high ticket prices, and (perhaps even more annoying) the accompanying booking fees, handling charges, restoration levies and other ludicrously named rip-offs. He argues that theatres should, once a week, charge cinema prices to see whether this would attract a younger audience. In response, some West End producers did mount such cut-price evenings, and the take-up by young audiences was highly encouraging. The National Theatre’s successful Travelex £15 seasons are also an echo of what The Independent has been arguing for.

If the theatre world is really serious about attracting new audiences, it must address the question of ticket prices. The place to start is the “cheap” seats. Teenagers and twentysomethings have traditionally enjoyed their first experience of theatre in the “gods”. But now even those far-off seats in the balcony, which should be an affordable £10, can often be three times that and well beyond the reach of many would-be theatregoers.

While the stalls seats costing £500 for Mel Brooks are headline-grabbing, it’s worth noting that even the cheapest advance seats are £75, which is hardly an inexpensive evening. The subsidised-theatre sector is increasingly trying to keep back a percentage of cheaper seats to entice young audiences. But the gloomy evidence of the much larger commercial sector’s pricing policy serves only to justify accusations that theatre remains an elitist art form.