Welcome to the cheap seats – if you can find one

Mark Shenton has written this article for The Stage magazine and we take the liberty of reproducing it here in order to make our own point about the prices in the provinces.

 Mark_Shenton sm

I reckon I’ve sat in the top balconies of just about every single theatre in London. It’s how I began my theatregoing life as a teenager newly arrived in London. Every now and then I’d find myself upgraded to a seat in a lower part of the house, usually when the balconies got shut during underperforming shows, which was always an unexpected treat.


These days I’m more often than not spoilt, sitting in choice locations in the centre stalls. Managements tend to want critics to see their shows from the best positions possible so that they have the best possible experience possible, but I do sometimes think we should also experience shows as other theatregoers do, whether because of cost or availability of tickets, from less good views. (I always try to be mindful of how much audiences are being charged, and will often calibrate a show’s worth by whether or not I’d put my own money where my mouth is. In the last week, I’ve paid to see both Assassins and The Scottsboro Boys again, so I’ve been true to my word.)


The upper circle and balcony experience provided me with an invaluable learning curve in what makes theatre resonate. It’s easier for actors to perform where the audience can see the whites of their eyes (and vice versa), since the connection is right there. But an actor who connects to the back of the Olivier circle or the upper reaches of Drury Lane is something else.


There are no bad seats, only bad performances

A friend of mine has often said to me, “There are no bad seats, there are only bad performances,” and its true – to an extent. Watching a lousy show from a great seat hardly dissipates the pain. But sometimes that pain may be amplified by the amount of money you’ve spent on having to endure it.


Perhaps you wouldn’t mind quite so much if you’d spent less. And that’s the greatest pity of the West End’s rampant inflation on theatre ticket prices. Every single seat, regardless of where in the house it is, is becoming an investment. And if you have to pause before you even book a ticket in the balcony, why bother?


I was amazed to discover that seats in the remote top balcony at the Pinter Theatre are £35 and £25 for weekend performances (though the same tickets at weekday performances go for £15).


This trend is being replicated all around town, though the Haymarket – with its hard wooden gallery benches is hard pressed to charge more than £15 a ticket. Gallery tickets for The Elephant Man, which the theatre is importing from Broadway with Bradley Cooper in the title role, have not gone on sale yet, but the majority of the stalls is being priced at £108 with only a few rear rows at £65.


Theatre is a supply-and-demand business, and producers charge what they think the market will bear. Now that London has officially breached the £100 threshold for a play, I just hope the balcony doesn’t follow suit.


Never mind the rich folk; they can take care of themselves, and if they’re willing to pay the premium, that’s fine. It’s the poorer, younger theatregoers – and the theatregoing habit we hope they will gain, as I did, in the upper circle and balcony – that I hope aren’t priced out of the equation.


Opera critic Rupert Christiansen recently wrote in the Telegraph of paying a nostalgic visit to the London Coliseum’s top balcony during its current highly acclaimed production of The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, and finding it a third empty. That may be symptomatic of a wider malaise affecting ENO at the moment, but could it simply be that those seats are simply too expensive for where they are? The balcony top price was £40. Admittedly, that’s for a cast of over 100 and a similarly sized orchestra. But it’s steep, in every sense.


Instead, theatregoers are wising up and realising that, if they hold off booking overpriced advance tickets for areas like that, they can simply wait till closer to the time and see if any discounts turn up for better seats.


But it must be a false economy. Surely it would be better to start filling the theatre from the top down, rather than the bottom up? We should be encouraging the enthusiasm of a future generation of theatregoers, rather than relying on more established (and monied) punters to keep the West End in good health.


Taking a look at our major touring theatres that have Upper Circles the overpricing for the remote parts of the theatre seems to match that of the West End. As you will deduce the main difference being in the pricing of the best seats which are significantly lower than London; however a larger proportion of seats are at this top premium price and the difference between a top price of £49.50 and the lowest price of £29.50 in a theatre that accommodates 2300 patrons is insignificant and will not encourage new visitors to return.


For Wicked at Bristol, the Hippodrome charges £79 (incl fee) for most of the Circle and Stalls seats (called premium) whilst the Upper Circle, a bench style low backed seat is priced at £35.50 (plus fee). For Blood Brothers at Manchester Palace the best seats are £35.90 (incl fee) and the Upper Circle (Grand Tier) are priced at £25.90 with a couple of the back rows at an affordable £12.90. In Southampton The Bodyguard commands a top price of £49.50 in the Stalls and Front Circle, whereas the Balcony seats are £29.50 as are the standing places in the Stalls and Circle. Newcastle’s Theatre Royal currently has Barnum where top price seats in Stalls and Circle are £45, the Upper Circle £43 and the front rows of the Gallery are £34 and further back £22. For Oklahoma at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre top price seats in the Dress Circle are £43.25 and the cheap seats in the Upper Circle are £34.25 with the rear rows priced down at £27.25.