The majority of seats in the National's biggest auditorium, the Olivier, have been going for just a tenner for the past six months, with Tales from the Vienna Woods, the final production in the Travelex-sponsored £10 season there, opening this week. But across in West End, a weekend ticket for the new musical Tonight's the Night - previewing from this week - will cost five-and-a-half times as much.

Catching up with Broadway

It hasn't always been thus. The most expensive seats to see a musical in London in 1983 were £14. So, the new weekend high of £55 for Rod Stewart compilation Tonight's the Night marks a 400% rise in 20 years (against UK inflation rates of 78% over the same period). By way of explanation, co-producer Phil McIntyre told US trade magazine Variety, "We're trying to catch up with Broadway."

It needn't always be thus, either. Another show that's travelling from Broadway to the West End this week, Thoroughly Modern Millie, has pegged its own top price at a 'mere' £40, well below the current prevailing West End musical norm of £42.50 or £45. As one of its co-producers, Paul Elliott, sagely told me: "I'd rather have 1,400 people seeing the show at £40 than 1,000 at £50."

Meanwhile, two more musicals transferring this autumn from the National Theatre - where you could see them at a top price of £38 - have set their best West End seats at £45 and £50, for Anything Goes and Jerry Springer - the Opera respectively. And that's not the whole picture: at the National, you also could see either for as little as £12 (without needing to prove eligibility for a concessionary rate), while the cheapest seats in the West End for Jerry Springer will be £25 (for front row seats sold on the day of the performance, or advance seats for those aged 25 or under).

This is a literal example of the inflation that takes place in the short journey from the South Bank across the river - though, of course, the National Theatre run is already being subsidised by taxpayers' money (now to the tune of some £14 million per annum) so you should expect to pay less there.

Subsidy & sponsorship

Indeed, thanks partly to the twin cushions of the National's subsidy and sponsorship, plus a different way of producing the shows themselves that has employed less scenic effects, the South Bank complex has also this year made a triumphant but temporary intervention in pricing policy. For the Travelex £10 season in the Olivier, two-thirds of the tickets for plays -which have included Adrian Lester as Henry V, Zoe Wanamaker in His Girl Friday, Kenneth Branagh as Edmond and Frances Barber in Tales from the Vienna Woods - have been just a tenner, with the remainder only £25.

It was part of artistic director Nicholas Hytner's intention, when he took over the running of the National earlier this year, to broaden the accessibility of the place, and he's succeeded. "I'm quite happy to programme in such a way that sections of the wider audience may be dismayed by particular shows; but I don't want to programme for only one section of the greater national public," he told me as he began his regime on the South Bank. Nor only to play to one. While the theatre has long offered ticket reductions to the under 25s and the over 60s, "now it's time to look after that vast group in the middle, who don't come that often because they can't afford to".

But in the West End different rules apply. Indeed, even Hytner himself admitted as much at a recent press conference: "I wouldn't know where to start if I had to make a profit", he admitted. It's tough for West End producers, he went on candidly, "and I think a lot of the shit that gets thrown at them is unfair."

The business in show business

Commercial theatre exists, after all, to make money - it's show business with the emphasis on the second word - and, as a consequence, charges what it thinks the market will bear. Producing for the theatre is a fine balancing act. While it's sometimes said you can't make a living doing it, you can occasionally make a killing.

A producer only recoups his capitalisation (the amount of money - his own or more usually that of his investors - that was spent on putting on the show) after he's met the ongoing weekly running costs (the amount of money he needs to spend to keep the show on). The higher the ticket price is, the quicker that potentially happens and a show starts trading in profit.

On Broadway, where ticket prices have long been stratospheric, that's been partly because the fixed weekly running costs to be met first are so high. Even the ushers and press agents in New York are unionised, with set rates for them as well as just about everyone else to be accounted for. Now London's ticket prices are threatening to close in on their Broadway counterparts. At current exchange rates, £55 is $92, a mere $8 shy of the regular Broadway price of $100 a ticket, a saving which is mostly swallowed up for theatregoers here in the additional purchase of a programme that they'd get for free in New York.

And yet, actors are paid considerably less over here. The Equity minimum wage for actors and stage managers agreed for the West End last year is £320 a week, while on Broadway, it's $1,354 a week (or £815). So while producers are nudging their ticket prices closer to Broadway ones, the cast salaries are not necessarily going in the same direction.

The producers, in short, are the only ones who are technically benefiting. They would argue that, with the current precarious state of the West End, needs must but, ultimately, they'll be the ones losing a whole lot more if the pricing trend increases. The public will vote with their feet and find cheaper entertainment elsewhere.

Theatre tickets, like airline seats, are perishable goods, and an empty seat is money lost forever. While, like airlines, producers would prefer you bought their goods at the stated prices, the fact is that theatre is one of the most heavily discounted industries around. There's the visible side of this in initiatives like the long-running TKTS booth in Leicester Square, and of course, offers on the Internet like those on

A changing market

Nevertheless, recognising that tickets prices need to keep pace with a changing market, leading West End impresario Cameron Mackintosh earlier this year introduced an off-peak pricing structure for his shows, Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera, that lowers the prices for early weekday performances and matinees.

"The concept of variable prices for the same seat at different times of the year has long been accepted as standard in other areas of the leisure industry, particularly airlines," Mackintosh explained. "In implementing this scheme, we are responding to public demand for a wider choice of prices."

If theatregoers are flexible and prepared to shop around, there are bargains to be had. Even the price-breaking Tonight's the Night has a Thursday matinee price of just £17.50 for all tickets as well as special-rate promotions like the one being advertised this week (See Prizes & Offers). It's just that it might not suit everyone to go on a Thursday afternoon or on a specified date, and the weekend prices - more than three times higher – could be viewed as cynically targeting out-of-towners who can only get to London at weekends.

Misleading & dangerous

In the National Theatre's own recently published Annual Report, Trevor Nunn's departing words as artistic director, however, sound a note of caution about jumping too quickly onto the cheaper-is-better-for-everyone bandwagon. Arts journalists, he writes, who "persist in proclaiming that 'give-away prices' are the only hope the theatre has for survival are playing a misleading and dangerous game."

He goes on, "The only way without sponsorship that prices can be cut is by theatres doing very small cast plays, with cheap designs, and by heavily reducing the wages of actors, technicians and theatre workers generally. This amounts to a recipe for disaster for theatre in this country, where already ticket prices are only half what they are in America."

As we've seen, however, some ticket prices here have very nearly equalled those in America - while our actors are already paid far less. Perhaps the real danger is that the theatre makes far too much money - but for far too few.