Fifty quid a seat? No wonder kids won't go

Saturday 15 June 2002 00:00
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Good old Cameron Mackintosh. I say that not as one angling for the part of romantic lead in the next cast change of Les Miserables (unless he really insists) but as one fed up with high ticket prices at West End theatres. At an awards ceremony in America this week, reported in The Stage, Sir Cameron used his own acceptance speech for a lifetime achievement award to take issue with the producers of The Producers (a job description to die for).

They are planning to set a new record for ticket prices when the show transfers from Broadway to London next year. The Producers' producers (which doesn't sound quite so good) include Harvey Weinstein of Miramax in America, while the West End's David Ian will mount the show over here.

"I think £40 a ticket is a lot of money at the moment," said Sir Cameron. "Ticket prices will eventually rise. I just hope that 'eventually' is kept off as long as possible."

Sir Cameron has a record of standing up for the audience from time to time. In 1989 he protested outside the theatre at the opening of Miss Saigon, which he produced. That protest was about the exorbitant price being charged by the theatre owners for programmes. At the theatres that he owns, he has cast lists distributed free of charge.

It's good to see him speaking out again. The inherent contradiction between the often-stated wish of theatre managements to woo young people and the prohibitive prices they charge is something that they have steadfastly refused to acknowledge.

And it's not all they refuse to acknowledge. Just over a year ago a conference took place about the future of theatre. It contained a provocative speech by Sir Richard Eyre, the former director of the National Theatre. It is a speech that theatre managements never mention, do their best to forget, and certainly have not acted upon. So, let's remind them.

Sir Richard said that British theatre was over-priced, uncomfortable and sometimes "bowel-churningly bad." "To be asked to pay £25 or £30 or even £35 to see a modestly successful production in the theatre when you can buy a hardback book or CD for half the price, or go to the cinema for a third of it, just doesn't wash. And on top of that, to be asked to pay £3 to read in a programme that the leading actor started his career in Worthing and loves cats is to invite ridicule, which can easily turn to contempt when you discover that you are being asked to pay £2 for a Coke which has cost the management 12p. All of which might go some of the way to explaining why the young are reluctant to go to the theatre."

They were wise words, but they seem to have been ignored. The cheapest ticket for the recent production Life after George, with Cheryl Campbell, was £20. So much for attracting young people. I doubt that the price of interval drinks – if you manage to push your way to the bar – is any less absurd than it was a year ago. Programmes, certainly, are often a rip-off and always over-priced. The programmes at the dozen theatres owned by Lord Lloyd-Webber are £3, which young audiences might think rather high.

But maybe it's unfair to single him out. Over the coming months I shall sample programmes and drinks of Coke at West End theatres and report back on whether Sir Richard Eyre's advice is being taken. Sir Richard's own productions will, of course, be included.

*Those who thought Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys looked scary at the jubilee pop jamboree with his sober suit, fixed stare and non-stop hand movements, should have been at his full-scale concerts at the Royal Festival Hall this week. During the two tremendous shows, Wilson had the same gesticulations and zombie stare as at the Palace, only this time he wore a beach shirt rather than a suit.

There was one other big difference. He insisted on telling knock-knock jokes. At one point he made another member of the band ask him who was there. "Boo." "Boo who?" "Don't cry Geoffrey!" said Wilson beaming with pleasure as a few devotees forced a polite titter at this golden oldie.

Suddenly I realised what Wilson had missed in his famous seven years in bed in the Seventies. It wasn't the music; records could always be brought to him. It was the jokes. Only now has he discovered knock-knock jokes. I can't wait for the next tour when Brian asks the audience how many Beach Boys it takes to change a light bulb.

*Gaffer and best boy have always held pride of place among the more exotic and puzzling job descriptions on the credits at the end of films. But the new movie Searching For Debra Winger has a job to challenge even those. The film, directed by Rosanna Arquette, includes cameo appearances from a number of Hollywood actresses; so perhaps it is fitting that the credits list the job of "on-site beauty doctor." British make-up girls, eat your hearts out.

d.lister@independent.co.uk

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