London is known for its West End theatres just as Broadway is known for its musicals. Theatre is one of life’s bonuses and its only downside is that prices discriminate against many who cannot afford the luxury of a £40 ticket for a semi-decent seat with an unrestricted view.
According to the Society of London Theatre’s Box Office Data Report, ticket prices have hit an average of £46.40. The report included West End theatres and the major subsidised houses. Earlier this year, the Stage reported that the price for a top-price seat for a West End show now averages £70.
Of course, many people, myself included, only ever buy discounted tickets, through outlets such as TKTS or Today Tix. Even discounted, these tickets still average £40 plus booking fee for a seat with a £65 face value and it is still a considerable financial outlay, particularly for seats in the corner of the stalls, towards the back and in a draught. And while for the performers it is just another night in a long run, for the theatre goer it is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the event. If the performers are having an off day, while it’s just another night for them, to those who scrimped and saved it is a terrible disappointment. For many on an average income, a trip to the theatre will cost one fifth of their weekly pay after you factor in a programme, interval drinks or ice cream. For that price, the performance needs to be spot on, each and every time actors take to the stage.
Young people are excluded from the West End even as more shows are targeted towards the younger demographic. The West End will always charge what the market will bear and the truth is there are plenty of older people with good incomes who are willing to pay £30, £50, even £70 for a seat and these are not even the most expensive seats.
This has real implications for the rest of us and the future of the theatre. As a teenager, I remember going to the theatre to see ‘The Lion King’. I was lucky because my cousin’s friend was ill, which meant I could take her place. It was a dream come true - I had never seen anything like that show. Years later we saw ‘Wicked’ and once again it was a magical experience, going to the theatre all dressed up and pretending we were fancy.
West End theatres put on Broadway hits such as ‘Dear Evan Hansen’, ‘Hamilton’, ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’, all productions targeting a younger generation. But can the younger generation afford it when lousy seats often go for £50? TodayTix have Black Friday sales selling tickets for certain productions for as little as £15 but you will not see the major productions on that list.
Why does this matter though? Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre will always have standing tickets in the yard for £5 each, so schoolchildren studying Shakespeare at least get the chance to go the theatre and see the great dramatist’s plays performed live.
In that wonderful book ‘A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare’, James Shapiro estimates that in the last year of the sixteenth century more than a third of London’s population saw a play every single month. London’s playhouses had audiences from all walks of life. If only this was the case today.
While there is a sense that West End shows are becoming exclusive and out of reach for many, there have been steps taken in recent months to be more inclusive. Come summer, people travel from all over to line up in the heat with bags filled with food, to see short performances of the major West End shows for free. Recently, the director of ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’, starring James McAvoy, had a pay-what-you-can dress rehearsal performance in a bid to make theatre more accessible for those who can’t usually afford it.
Musicals and plays are becoming increasingly popular, especially among the younger generation, and we need to make prices more accessible. Theatre should not just be for the privileged.