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After almost half a century of ardent theatregoing I have experienced a disheartening realisation. I now hate going to plays in the West End. I find the sense of social anachronism imparted by gilded auditoria spirit-deadening and I'm dismayed by the hyping of productions as vehicles for miscast television celebrities.

But at least those features are understandable. Producers are stuck with the buildings and know that star names sell plays. What infuriates me is something else: the way purchasers of tickets are treated. The prices, monstrous to start with, climb with booking fees and soar when blocks of seats are flogged off to agencies for resale.

Even to discover which tickets are available at which prices is a temper-fraying research enterprise involving the navigation of garish websites that land you, if you're not careful in your box-ticking, with a lifetime of junk mail. Theatres now refuse to exchange tickets for other performances, even when those performances are under-booked, or to accept returns for attempted resale. By the time you've bought your tickets you feel ripped off. No wonder audiences lack the sense of communal eagerness on which the theatre depends for its vitality and its social function.

How different things are at the subsidised theatres. State support for the theatre seems to me to be hard to justify in principle but to be vindicated by the practice. I admit I wasn't wowed when, having been a devoted attender of the National Theatre since its inception, I learned from the opening statement of the present director, Nicholas Hytner, that he supposed he "didn't mind" if white, middle-class people continued to come to plays under his regime.

But at the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company you find in audiences the feel of life that the commercial theatre has lost. There are many reasons for this, but I'm sure the decency and helpfulness that greet buyers of tickets are among them. You feel welcome, not mere financial fodder.

 
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There's always someone worse off...
October 23rd, 2008
1:10 AM
Count yourself lucky. In Sydney and Melbourne there is precious little theatre of any kind, good or bad. There is virtually no chance, for example, of Stoppard's Coast of Utopia ever being staged here. Instead, the Melbourne Festival, a dismal annual event presided over by an "installation artist" from Oregan, contains things like a Rumanian production of Romeo and Juliet set in a pizza bakery, and the umpteenth dance troop from Lombok. This is the antipodean equivalent of Hytner's contempt for white, middle class theatre goers. In Sydney the theatre scene will henceforth be dominated by Cate Blanchett, not known as a director, showing off her "celebrity" contacts. As for changing tickets, the ticketing here is a monopoly of Ticketmaster, which charges an unjustifiably large fee on the express condition "no exchange or return". Add to all this the deadening influence of the trade union, Actors' Equity". This union has done more to kill theatre in Australia than any other cause. It tried to insist on supplying stage hands to the Comedie Francaise, which, in their incomparable gallic way said "We are the Comedie Francaise. We do not have locals interfering". Touring productions from the UK (now alas of uneven quality)are belittled and given virtually no publicity.The upshot is that Australians are weary of seeing the same dozen actors in every production, with the unspoken belief that, unlike Russell Crowe, Blanchett and others, they are no good because they have not been validated by "success" (as what?) in Hollywood. I wouldn't be an actor here for all the tea in China.

Susan Hill
October 9th, 2008
1:10 PM
You are SO right. Well said. Excluding the actual production, in the West End what counts is The Sale, in the subsidised theatre, what counts is the Customer. And I speak as one with 20 years in the West End and counting.

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