Why are subsidised theatres charging West End rates?

Matt Trueman looks at a rising trend of subsidised theatres reflecting West End rates in their ticketing prices

London's West End
London's West End
© Steve Collis 2012/Flickr

You may not have noticed, but we’re starting to pay West End prices for subsidised theatre. Publicly funded theatres are starting to act like commercial producers and it’s us – the audience – that end up paying more.

Next month, the Young Vic opens Cat On a Hot Tin Roof in the West End. This isn’t a transfer – there’s been no home run first. It’s a West End production by a subsidised theatre – or, to be precise, by a subsidised theatre's commercial arm. Fair enough, you might think. It’s a well-known title with a big-name cast that includes Sienna Miller, Jack O’Connell and Colm Meaney. It belongs in a big West End theatre, rather than the 420-seat Young Vic. The bonus is a daring director, Benedict Andrews, making his West End debut. It’s quality fare in the commercial sector. The Young Vic has, essentially, upped its output. Its own programme continues as per. Everybody wins.

Except that tickets are priced at normal West End levels – a top price of £95. Not only is that two and a half times the Young Vic’s usual top tier at home (£38), it’s £10 higher than the show currently playing at the Apollo, Love in Idleness – a completely commercial show. Even if one takes the 87 premium tickets out of the equation, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is still charging £65 for the vast majority of seats. True, there are 75 tickets at every performance for £20 or less (with the Young Vic’s £10 rate for under-25s intact), but that’s fewer than one in ten seats and, again, no different to Love in Idleness.

In Michael Grandage's Donmar season in 2008 the idea was to reach as many people as possible, but tickets were much cheaper

Let’s go back a moment. In 2008, under artistic director Michael Grandage, the Donmar ran a season of four plays in the West End. All were star-led productions, among them Jude Law’s Hamlet and Kenneth Branagh’s Ivanov, that would, like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, have sold out the producing venue’s small theatre several times over. The idea, as now, was to reach as many people as possible. It was, Grandage said at the time, "an opportunity to expand the commitment to taking this work to as wide a public as possible and bring serious drama to the West End."

But the difference is that, back then, tickets cost the same as they would have done at the Donmar. Top price was £32.50 and there were 130 seats a night at only £10 – cheaper, in fact, than the cheapest seats at the Donmar. This wasn’t the subsidised sector working commercially. It was the subsidised sector taking over the West End. The whole project was underwritten by sponsorship. It was a big boon for audiences.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof isn’t alone in charging audiences full West End whack. Headlong is co-producing James Graham’s new play Labour of Love in the West End with the unfunded Michael Grandage Company, but their presence has made no difference to MGC’s usual pricing-structure. (Indeed, though the £10 tickets remain intact, prices are slightly up on its last production Photograph 51.)

Has it become about making the maximum box office possible?

Other productions are transferring after unusually short runs in subsidised theatres. The National will move JT Rogers Tony-nominated play Oslo into town after only three weeks in the Lyttelton – a total of 22 performances – when top-price tickets jump to £85. Likewise, The Ferryman ran for only four weeks at the Royal Court before its West End transfer – top price leaping from £45 to £125. Most main stage shows run for six weeks; some, with high-profile playwrights, play seven or eight. In those two weeks, some 7,500 people end up paying West End rates rather than Royal Court rates. The same happened with Hangmen – short home run, speedy West End transfer. It’s hard not to shake the notion that audiences are losing out in the rush to transfer dead-cert hits into town.

Is this about taking the work to as wide a public as possible or is it about making the maximum box office possible?

Let’s put this in context. Over a decade, the subsidised and commercial sectors have come together. The History Boys started it, when the National self-produced and kept profits for itself. War Horse kicked that on apace. Other subsidised theatres have since followed suit, retaining a stake when their hit shows transfer.

Arguably, something has tipped. Subsidised theatres have started thinking commercially

Co-productions with commercial partners are the next step. Both parties work together from the start and both benefit. The subsidised partner increases its chances of a transfer. The commercial partner gets a trial run to build momentum, with an established audience on tap to start word of mouth and the kite mark of a subsidised theatre’s brand.

There have been benefits. Not only has the shift helped subsidised theatres weather seven years of funding cuts, it has made for a more vibrant – and more accessible – West End. The work is riskier and there are more cheap seats.

Arguably, though, something has tipped. Subsidised theatres start thinking commercially, especially as they try to cover for funding cuts. Many have had to; the philosophy being that publicly funded theatres should exploit the commercial potential of their proven successes. Indeed, the Royal Court at least is dependent on such income. "Our budgets don’t balance without it," its executive director Lucy Davies told me last year. In other words, the Royal Court cannot realistically cover its costs through in-house shows alone. It has to think commercially.

Others, doubtless, are facing the same dilemma. It’s possible to think of the Young Vic’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as a kind of fundraiser – a commercial production designed to prop up the rest of the programme. It’s a far cry from the Donmar West End model.

That model may no longer be feasible. Sponsorship is harder to come by, and West End rents have significantly increased. To keep those cheap seats cheap, top price tickets have increased across the West End. And, of course, subsidised theatres are under more financial pressure than they once were.

Even so, that doesn’t change the fact that audiences end up shelling out. We are, essentially, paying market rates for subsidised shows. It’s not unreasonable, then, to ask where that subsidy is actually going. Is anything actually being subsidised or are subsidised theatres merely propping up a West End that exploits its audiences? That, I’d argue, is deeply problematic.