Not so long ago I took my three-year-old to see Noddy at the Lyric, Hammersmith. Smashing show, shame about the cost. Ninety minutes of Toytown set me back pounds 20 for one and a half tickets. Enough to make the wobbly man wobble over.
At least Noddy offered reductions for children. If I look through the entertainment guides today I will see that children get in half-price at cinemas, circuses, horse-race meetings and plenty more. At West End theatres, never. Why do theatres never follow the cinema's lead and give half-price seats for under-16s?
For all the politically correct talk from theatre directors about attracting new and young audiences, London's theatres obstinately and shortsightedly continue to price themselves out of the reach of most people, and certainly out of the reach of teenagers.
While the pounds 100 seats at the Royal Opera House are consistently given as an example of elitism, it is rare to see discussion of theatre seat prices. Critics write articles about productions, producers, actors, the history of individual theatres, even the architecture of the buildings. Never the price of seats. But then their tickets are not only free, they do not even have the theoretical price of the seat printed on them. I would wager that few critics have the remotest idea of how much those in neighbouring seats are paying.
The culprits are not just in the commercial West End. Even in the subsidised sector, reductions for youngsters are offered only sporadically, and with little consistency. You can sometimes obtain a reduced-price family ticket for the RSC, but youngsters booking on their own do not get a reduction. Those who can manage to understand the National Theatre's labyrinth of reduction offers will find that students and schoolchildren, whose teachers have not made them card-carrying associates of the theatre, must turn up on the night and try to buy a standby ticket if they want a reduction. They cannot book in advance and get cheap seats as they can at most cinemas, which do not insist on children's teachers having to get them accreditation.
Back in the West End, things may be changing, but oh, so slightly. Dame Janet Holmes a Court, who runs the Stoll Moss theatres which dominate Shaftesbury Avenue, is sometimes - wrongly - a target of criticism from theatre critics. Having talked to this feisty Australian at length I believe she might be the person with a radical enough approach to do something about the high prices and declining audiences. At Steven Berkoff's one-man show she allowed young people in for pounds 3 half an hour before the performance. But it will need more than a one-off gesture to persuade young people, and families, that they can afford a night at the theatre.
Here are a few gestures that could revolutionise London's theatre. Monday is traditionally the quietest night of the week, so why not price all tickets at pounds 5 and market that night?
Children, of course, should be half-price. Producers will cry that the books will simply not balance, but I am sceptical of such claims. Indeed Andrew Leigh, the forward-looking producer at the Old Vic, agrees that prices were too high and that he and his colleagues tended to charge what they thought the market could bear. 'Other businesses,' he reflected, 'figure out what it costs to make their product and then add on a percentage for profit. In other words, some small-cast West End plays could charge as little as pounds 10 a ticket.'
In the subsidised sector, sponsors should make keeping ticket prices down a priority. While they list education, new productions, even catering among their priorities, when did you last hear a business sponsor say he was putting money into a special fund to hold prices down? What better profile could businesses have than one which showed they were helping the public? Every ticket could carry a logo and a slogan.
Part of the annual grants from the Government and Arts Council should be earmarked simply to keep seat prices down. What happens at the moment is the worst of all worlds. When the big companies receive their grants - usually less than they ask for - the artistic programmes are already in place and cannot be altered. The only movable feast is self-generated income, most obviously the box-office receipts.
Ticket prices always expand to make up the difference between the grant and the cost of running the company. They are the last thing to be addressed when everything else is sorted.
We need a national ticket pricing policy in the arts, cheap tickets for kids, and a reduction in the general price of West End theatre tickets with all tickets at pounds 5 on Mondays. Theatres will find a new audience and come the next bank holiday, I will be able to share my passion with my family and take them to the theatre.
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