West End theatergoers grumble as prices for the best seats surge

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West End theatergoers grumble as prices for the best seats surge
Wyndham’s Theater in London on Wednesday night, Oct. 25, 2023. Tickets for the new staging of “King Lear,” starring Kenneth Branagh, range from roughly $24 in the theater’s uppermost level to $300 for the best seats. (Jane Stockdale/The New York Times)

by Alex Marshall

LONDON.- When hundreds of playgoers lined up outside Wyndham’s Theater in London this week, the mood was excited. They had come to see Kenneth Branagh, the revered Shakespearean actor, directing and playing the title role in “King Lear.”

But some were still thinking about the price they’d paid to be there.

Alan Hooper, 75, a retired teacher, said that, at the box office that morning, he was offered a seat in the first balcony for 200 pounds, around $240, or a standing place for a fraction of the cost. He chose to stand for the show’s two-hour run time. West End prices, Hooper said, were “out of control.”

Another audience member, George Butler, 28, said that he was overjoyed to have secured two tickets for 20 pounds (about $24) each, even if they were in the nosebleeds. “Theater is becoming very elitist,” Butler said. “The minute there’s a well-known person in a play, it’s unaffordable.”

London’s theater world is increasingly simmering with complaints over soaring ticket prices, and a perception that they are creeping closer to Broadway levels. Even as producers insist that a fraction of tickets must be sold at steep prices to offset cheap seats for low earners, concern is growing that a night at the theater is becoming an unaffordable luxury.

The West End’s own stars are fueling the fuss. In April, veteran actor Derek Jacobi told The Guardian newspaper that potential theatergoers were now having to think “more than twice” about attending shows. A few months later, actor David Tennant stirred debate when he told a Radio Times podcast that rising prices were “strangling the next generation of an audience coming through.”

This fall, theater message boards and social media erupted in indignation when tickets for a production of “Plaza Suite,” starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, went on sale with a top price of 395 pounds (around $477) — a level rarely heard of in London.

Yet it was unclear whether these few high-profile cases reflected a wider problem. Alistair Smith, the editor of The Stage, a British theater newspaper, said it was difficult to analyze whether ticket prices were increasing across the board, because producers release so little sales data.

To fill the gap, his newspaper annually surveys the cheapest and most expensive tickets across the West End. This year’s results, Smith said, showed that the average price for tickets in the most expensive price group was 141 pounds (about $170) — a decade ago, the figure was a much lower 81 pounds. This year’s average was still “a long, long way behind Broadway,” he said, adding that the cost of the priciest tickets had barely changed since 2022, despite soaring household costs.

However, Smith added, the average price of the least expensive tickets had risen by more than inflation to 25 pounds ($30). “It would be a concern if that trend continues,” he said.

For many West End producers, the perception of a price hike is a source of growing frustration. Patrick Gracey, a producer who sits on the board of the Society of London Theater, said that the news media published articles about high ticket prices because it “gets clicks.” Those stories were “misleading audiences about the availability of affordable tickets,” he said.

Last year, Gracey said, theatergoers paid an average 54 pounds (about $66), to see a West End show. (The average price on Broadway last week was double that at $125, according to data from The Broadway League.)

Producers were facing soaring costs, Gracey added. After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, some theaters saw their energy costs spike as much as 500%, and there were similar jumps in set-building material prices. Last year, West End actors and technical staff secured a pay deal that saw their wages rise, too.

Even with those pressures, Gracey said producers were working to keep theater accessible and were offering cheap tickets for those who couldn’t splurge. “It’s only possible to offer those tickets because some people are paying top price,” he said.

The producers of “King Lear” said in an emailed statement that they were offering 150 tickets per performance at 20 pounds — equivalent to 19% of the house. Those included 17 in the front row, with the rest in the back rows of the theater’s three tiers.

The problem was with audience perception, said Nick Hytner, a co-founder of the Bridge Theater. Producers needed to develop “a compelling counternarrative” that theater was affordable or else young people would decide that the art form wasn’t for them. Discounting the worst seats at the back of cramped Victorian theaters didn’t cut it, he said, adding that theaters need to develop more innovative approaches to pricing.

One West End show that is trying something new is “Operation Mincemeat,” a musical set in World War II. At every performance, all the seats in the house cost the same price, but that amount rises gradually throughout the week, from 39.50 pounds on Mondays to 89.50 pounds on weekends. Jon Thoday, the managing director of Avalon, the show’s producer, said that the production lost money on Mondays, but added that the pricing strategy was good for the musical’s long-term future because it brought in a younger audience.

“There will always be a fuss about ticket prices, unless others change,” Thoday said.

At “King Lear” earlier this week, theatergoers weren’t complaining about Branagh’s show, at least. Marshall Shaffer, 31, a movie journalist visiting from New York, said he had paid $403 for two tickets. “I did not think that was necessarily a bargain,” he said, “but Branagh’s probably the premiere Shakespeare interpreter of his time, and I think it’s worthwhile.”

Another audience member, Penny Smith, joked that she’d had to “sell a child” to buy her ticket, but said she was happy to pay to see Branagh. Plus, she said with a laugh, the tickets were “a darn sight cheaper than New York. Have you seen the prices there?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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