‘Don’t clap too hard. It’s a very old building,’ washed-out Archie Rice said in John Osborne’s The Entertainer (1957). London’s West End theatres are as clapped-out as Britain’s piers and holiday camps. At the Apollo Theatre in 2013, eighty-eight members of the audience were injured – seven seriously – when plaster from the ceiling landed on them during The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. In the same year, bits of the proscenium arch fell onto astonished audience members during a matinee of Top Hat.
The decline of the theatre is a British tradition. So is the exploitation of the ticket buyers. In terms of the affection and regard shown to its patrons, The Society of West End Theatres is ranked below British Airways.
It could also match British Airways for bare-faced greed. According to The Stage, the average West End Theatre ticket price topped £100 for the first time in November 2018, having risen in price by almost a fifth from the previous year. Hamilton has the most exploitative ticket pricing in the West End. £274 buys a VIP Reception Package, which includes your own hospitality area before the show, an open bar, canapes and a premium seat.
In March, the Pinter Theatre released its tickets for a ten-week run of Betrayal, starring Tom Hiddleston. The agencies gobbled most of the seats up within half an hour, leaving only two options for the rest of us: a £65 seat behind a pillar or a £195 ‘Luxury Lounge Experience’ ticket, which includes Ottolenghi nibbles, champagne, and your own separate entrance to the theatre so you don’t have to share a doorway with coachloads of people from Lincoln.
On the same morning as Betrayal’s tickets were released, London Theatre Direct’s website offered seats not obstructed by a pillar, but they were £216 each, or £16.95 (+ £1 theatre restoration levy) for each Pinteresque pause.
No other leisure pursuit has a wider chasm between cost and value for money. As the quality of the West End’s most garish productions have risen to world-class standards, the toilets and refreshment facilities remain pathetically outdated.
The snobbish belief that dramatic art should be austerely endured rather than actually enjoyed has done much harm. You settle into the discomfort of your seats just in time to find they’ve turned the house lights down, so you can’t tell you’re in a vermin-infested dust-trap.
Three hundred of you will share five squalid toilet cubicles during the interval. A nasty little musical theatre graduate flogs you a tepid £3.80 Diet Pepsi at the rococo bar, before you return to your seat and consider ending it all by drowning yourself nose-first into a dairy-free Loseley ice cream. Welcome to the Theatre of Cruelty.
Cloakroom facilities appear to be vetoed as bourgeois, leaving the chattering classes to watch David Hare put the world to rights (but more usually lefts) under groaning shopping bags. Delfont Mackintosh Ltd have spent £50million on theatre restoration over the last 15 years, yet the cloakrooms in two of their theatres can only accommodate a ‘limited number’ of items on a ‘first come, first served’ basis.
One of these theatres is –– you’ve guessed it –– the Victoria Palace, hosting the £274 VIP experience Hamilton. Good luck if you turn up to see that with your small child, because you would be denied storage for a pushchair quicker than the theatrical community can label you as a ‘female-identifying mother’.
In March, The Stage announced that the West End will have it’s first new theatre for 50 years. Nimax Theatres Ltd will build the Westminster Council-approved, mixed-use development at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Charing Cross Road. Expectations for the venue, on a site that has previously housed the London Astoria and the Crosse & Blackwell pickling factory, are going to be higher than the seats in the Gods. And so they should be.
London’s West End theatres produced £705million of revenue last year, yet none of it resulted in getting ice into the drinks. Patrons should be less accepting than The Entertainer’s Archie Rice and as furious as John Osborne’s angry young men. They shouldn’t just simmer quietly in their seats. Crass, outdated greed is the woeful reality of British Theatreland.
Maybe the new West End theatre will offer patrons value for money ticket prices, together with updated toilets, generous cloakrooms and a decent, well-made cocktail. Now that really would bring the house down.