Flogging the boards

London theatres' cheap ticket schemes are a band-aid, not a cure.

Matt Warman

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Nick Hytner has been upstaged. The upstart Hampstead Theatre has trumped his National Theatre’s ‘Tickets for a Tenner’ season with the slightly less catchy ‘Tickets for £6.50′. But still, those tricky folks in Swiss Cottage must be pleased with themselves; their scheme is more memorable, by a whole £3.50. They’ll no doubt get audiences from further afield than before, and encourage occasional visitors to become frequent ones.

But these crowd-pleasing, headline-grabbing schemes hide a desperation that threatens this country’s performing arts, and runs the risk of stultifying an already scared industry.

On closer inspection, Hytner’s season is not quite the new dawn it seems. For the general public, the short-term effects have been fantastic. Full houses and better atmospheres drive on artist, administrators and audiences alike, and increasingly, the National is divesting itself of theatre’s elitist atmosphere. There has indeed been a kind of revolution on the South Bank, and for that Hytner has not been praised enough.

A couple of caveats though. Actually, the house’s better seats were £25, which is good but not groundbreaking – and the National quietly raised the price of student standby tickets to £9, thereby encouraging an element of the desired young trendy audiences to book ahead. The price had been static for a while, and so the move is rather more astute than it is cynical. Meanwhile, West End prices can circle £40, and standby prices there are around £15.

At Swiss Cottage, the Hampstead is to offer seats at this bargain price of £6.50 to the under-26s, if they remain unsold by a certain time. All well and good, but why does this successful theatre want to do such a thing? A strong element of Antony Clark’s programme does seem to be a philanthropic-evangelical aim to get people into something they might otherwise live without. That much is positive, but there is an element of, well, persuasion, indirectly from funding-body Arts Council England.

Arts Council England helped to build the new Hampstead theatre, moving it out of its portacabin arrangement, and providing a genuinely exciting new venue. The funding models were, apparently, built on a projection of 70 percent full houses, which is what the old venue had sustained. Eminently sensible; a new venue, better, more attractive, based on the same audiences. So any newly attracted audiences would prove a bonus, and potentially help to fund a programme of work even more innovative, and better sustain an occasionally impoverished arts community.

Well not quite – the new venue is some 100 seats bigger than the old. So the assumption is that audiences will go, just because there are more seats on which they might sit. Clark’s scheme should fill an innovative theatre, that deserves already to be fuller. But it will do so because it has to. Without a house full of even only slightly paying punters, the new and whizzy Hampstead will struggle.

What will this do to programming? The West End, justifiably, sustains itself at prices that the market will support. Producers are not there so much to challenge as they are to entertain. Hytner, whose duty is more evenly weighted, admitted at a recent press conference that he couldn’t envisage making a profit, even if he had to. Cheaper prices will presumably attract those who already go to the theatre away from Shaftesbury Avenue and out to Waterloo and the Hampstead. But without a substantial increase in the overall number of theatregoers, that may precipitate an increase in West End prices, which nobody wants.

At the other end of the scale, it still seems unlikely that many will think, for instance, of going to Southwark’s Union Theatre, or Fleet Street’s Bridewell, when they can all go to more prestigious venues for less. There seems to be scant evidence that large organisations’ initiatives encourage visits to fringe venues.

The danger, in the current funding climate, is that West End producers increase prices, Fringe venues see static or even falling audiences, and a few big players find themselves increasingly successful, but also increasingly isolated, having to make ends meet any way they can, be it cheap tickets or populist programmes.

Discounts will buck up the short term, but outside the massively subsidised and sponsored major venues, they promise little. The point is not that £10 is terrible, but it is that £6.50 could be reckless. There is also a grave danger in emphasising the cheapness of any production; shows can be good because they are profound, moving, entertaining, but never because they are merely cheap. Discounts must augment quality, not mitigate for half-assed efforts – that this is not happening must continue to be emphasised. In paying £40 to see a massively staged musical, you can see where the money goes. The expense should still be obvious, even if you only paid less than a quarter of that.

If there is a solution, perhaps it is in promotion and in self-perception. Peter Brook was accused of spending millions of dollars to turn a New York theatre into a ruined shadow of its glory, which is a demonstration that trendy isn’t new and shiny, it can be simply what money can hardly buy: what feels right. Including the Fringe spaces that feel so right, the industry as a whole needs funding, and sometimes it needs to work as a whole too. The big players need to be aware that they can accidentally bully the smaller, but most of all those aiming for bigger audiences must not believe that numbers can grow forever.

Matt Warman writes on Fringe theatre for the Daily Telegraph website.

Read on:

The joy of political incorrectitude, by Patrick Marmion

The Dream in one dimension, by Josie Appleton

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