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Michael Coveney: Does West End balance books at too high a price?

This week's theatre feels like the calm before the storm, in London at least, as I contemplate a play at Jermyn Street with possibly the least attractive title in the history of the West End, Kissing Sid James; a revival of the source play for Cabaret, John van Druten's I Am A Camera ("Me no Leica" said Dorothy Parker in the tersest bad review ever written); and a Spanish play from the 1970s at the ever invaluable Orange Tree, Richmond.

Out-of-towners have a better time of it this week with Barcelona "bad boy" Calixto Bieito returning to our shores with a Shakespearean mash-up of the forest scenes in As You Like It, Macbeth and, oddly, King Lear (where there are no forests) at the beautiful little Old Rep in Birmingham; and Kim Cattrall reprising her Liverpool Cleopatra opposite Michael Pennington (instead of Jeffery Kissoon) at the Chichester Festival Theatre.

Then begins a pile-up, with a terrible clash on Wednesday week between Sheridan Smith in Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic and Rupert Everett as Oscar Wilde in David Hare's The Judas Kiss at Hampstead Theatre. Neither show is allowing critics into previews, nor is Michael Attenborough for the Jonathan Pryce King Lear at the Almeida (which opens on Tuesday week), so big choices must be made.

Mind you, the biggest opening down our way is the live gig at the Bull and Gate in Kentish Town on Friday, when our neighbour Pamela Holmes-Williams heads up the Scratch Band in their always enjoyable programme of rock and blues classics, with several new songs thrown in for luck.

As usual, I won't be able to go because of a theatre commitment, so we invited Pamela and her husband, Kipper Williams, the cartoonist, in for drinks last night along with a couple of other neighbours we needed to catch up with. It's that time of year, isn't it: how was your summer, and what are your plans for the autumn?

Personally, I'm most looking forward to the new Caryl Churchill play, the transfer of Nick Payne's brillant Constellations from the Theatre Upstairs to the Duke of York's (hard on the heels of Jumpy), Kiss Me Kate at the Old Vic and Simon Russell Beale leading the launch of the Michael Grandage Company at the Noel Coward in Privates on Parade.

Talking of Jumpy, I was shocked to learn that some seats are selling (or being offered) at £75 a head, which seems a suicidal ticket pricing policy by Duke of York's owners Ambassador Theatre Group, and totally at odds with the spirit of the originating theatre, the Royal Court.

On the other hand, Constellations, which is a two-hander with marginal box office names (Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins), and a running time of just 70 minutes, has a top price of £37.50 and twenty day seats available at £10 a shout. That's more like it.

I just wonder what those meetings must be like where prices are fixed. Everything, at the Ambassador Theatre Group at least, must be part of some bigger accountancy picture, and Howard Panter's mob must obviously feel they are doing something right, as their company has reported a 17% surge in revenues to £111m in the 12 months to last March, with operating profits rising nearly 70 percent to £15.5m.

However, as the Sunday Times reported yesterday, all of that was eaten up by a £13.8m interest bill, as well as one-off costs associated with its pension scheme. This left ATG with a pre-tax profit of just £188,000 - Howard's salary? - an improvement at least on a £3.3m loss the previous year.

It's all a mystery to me, rather like the economics of Premier League football, where huge amounts of Sky Television money and other revenues have made the players multi-millionaires while their clubs, even the biggest, such as Manchester United, which is owned by American businessmen, teeter on the edge of bankruptcy.

In such a world, a delightful little play like Constellations will always get caught up in big business considerations, complete anathema to the spirit in which the piece was conceived and indeed played. The whole nature of the theatre-going experience, and of Nick Payne's play, would be transformed if ATG announced that all seats were available at £10 or £15, with no booking fees, for a six-month run. It would become the biggest "pop-up" hit in London.

Meanwhile, I note that ATG and its redoubtable boss still haven't got round to giving the lovely little Duke of York's that much needed lick of paint and tidy-up. As I've said before, if I owned a theatre like that, I'd be in there myself at weekends with my pinny on, down on my knees with a brush and pan and a tin of paint. This statement, by the way, does not constitute an offer of employment. I'd hate to put any ideas into Howard Panter's head. As he himself might say, with a wicked chuckle: "Why start now, dear?"


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