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Has Sky-High Ticket Pricing Made London Theatre the Wild West End?

Jonathan Bailey and Jade Anouka in Cock, Sarah Jessica Parker in Plaza Suite, Tom Holland in Romeo & Juliet, cast of Cabaret
Clockwise from top left: Jonathan Bailey and Jade Anouka in Cock, March 2022 (top ticket price £400); Sarah Jessica Parker in Plaza Suite in January (£395); Tom Holland in Romeo & Juliet in May (£345); the cast of Cabaret, which opened in December 2021 (£375). Composite: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg, Getty, Isaac Anthony

“Theatres are taking the piss,” says 26-year-old aspiring actor Laurine, an avid theatre enthusiast. “I book tickets anyway, but hate myself for doing it.” Relocating from France to London partly for its West End, Laurine is now disillusioned by the skyrocketing ticket prices. Recently, she spent weeks entering lotteries to see Romeo & Juliet starring Tom Holland. “It was so stressful, it was like a part-time job,” she adds.

After three weeks, she finally secured a spot, but her luck often fell short. She missed Jonathan Bailey in the revival of Cock as tickets rose to a staggering £400. Similarly, she watched An Enemy of the People from the worst seat, paid £35, and felt bitter irony when the play criticized elitism. “I could barely see him,” she recalls.

The pursuit of theatre as an inclusive art form seems impossible with such high prices. I recall the excitement of finally bagging a seat for Hamilton after entering lotteries for weeks, only to be seated so far back that the choreography looked like a blur. When I wanted to discuss Eddie Redmayne’s performance in Cabaret, friends were priced out by £300 tickets.

Fans aren’t alone in their frustration. Even prominent theatre figures lament high ticket prices. Andrew Scott highlighted this issue ahead of his play Vanya, emphasizing how such costs exclude younger audiences. Despite offering £10 tickets for those under 30 for one run, the rest of the seats soared over £150. Similarly, Sir Derek Jacobi decried the “elitist” turn in theatre at the Olivier awards, emphasizing its need to be accessible.

In 1809, Covent Garden’s new theatre faced three months of riots over raised ticket prices. Today, the rebellion might be subtler—a quiet disappearance of younger, diverse audiences essential for theatre’s future.

So, is the West End becoming a luxury escapade, excluding ordinary theatregoers? Online services like TodayTix offer discounted tickets last minute, and websites like SeatPlan and LOVEtheatre compete to sell unsold tickets. Physical boxes offices sometimes offer good deals last minute, though you shouldn’t expect bargains for sold-out shows such as Romeo & Juliet.

London also boasts smaller theatres with affordable prices. The Hampstead Downstairs, for instance, offers tickets for Sarah Power’s Grud at £25 or £10 for those under 30. Lucas Hnath’s Red Speedo at the Orange Tree Theatre offers seats starting at £15. The Latchmere and Finborough theatres can also be havens for affordable, high-quality performances.

Regional theatres like the Theatre Royal in Bath or Chichester Festival Theatre provide a loophole. Shows often premiere there before moving to the West End, where prices skyrocket. For example, A View from the Bridge started in Bath.

Theatre producers argue against the sentiment that greed is killing the West End. Patrick Gracey of the Society of London Theatres points out that the average West End ticket price, based on their data, is £57.31—a modest increase from last year. According to Gracey, high production costs drive ticket prices, not greed. He compares theatre expenses with other entertainment forms, citing Taylor Swift’s tour with an average ticket price of £206.

However, data from The Stage shows that the average top ticket price for plays rose by 50% in the last year, with Romeo & Juliet leading with a £345 top ticket price. This surge is partly due to dynamic pricing—an approach maximizing profits by raising prices for popular shows. Andrzej Lukowski from Time Out notes, “The top prices are only triggered when shows start selling exceptionally well.” – essentially legalized touting.

Broadway has a similar, if not worse, situation. The $1,299 premium seat for Merrily We Roll Along after its Tony wins exemplifies this. Still, some deals exist through the Times Square TKTS booth or subscription series to not-for-profit theatres.

Such dynamics make casting big names almost essential. Shows like Plaza Suite starring Sarah Jessica Parker rely on celebrity star power to justify high ticket prices. Nica Burns, a leading producer, argues that higher-priced tickets for big shows help subsidize affordable tickets for riskier productions. Her successful gamble with productions like For Black Boys… and Red Pitch showed that inclusive pricing could still be profitable.

Young producer Ameena Hamid stresses the importance of affordable tickets to attract younger audiences. Her show Why Am I So Single? has affordable seats and uses social media to engage potential younger fans. “Theatre hasn’t always felt super accessible,” she says, stressing the role of initiatives that offer cheaper tickets for each performance.

Projects like Solt and UK Theatre’s Theatre for Every Child aim to foster a new generation of theatregoers. Nichola Hytner’s collaboration with Travelex and Michael Grandage’s affordable West End shows come to mind as examples of democratizing theatre. The focus should be on making tickets accessible, as cost remains a significant barrier for many.

In summary, while there are solutions and initiatives aimed at making theatre more accessible, rising ticket prices risk making it an exclusive luxury. The industry must continue to find ways to balance profitability with accessibility to ensure theatre remains a vibrant, inclusive art form. “I mostly go to the theatre alone,” Laurine laments, “because my friends can’t afford to join me.”

Prices of current shows correct at time of going to press

Source: The Guardian, The Stage, Time Out