Shit loads of money

Last week I had the privilege of going to the theatre twice. On Monday night I went with a friend to The Old Vic to see Fanny and Alexander and on Wednesday night I went with my work friends to the Noel Coward theatre in the West End to see Girl from the North Country. While each show, and my experience of going to the theatre was different, there was one glaring similarity which is something I am always aware of when I attend a show in London. My fellow audience members. I am continually intrigued as to what sort of people can actually afford to go to the theatre in London these days.  I certainly can’t. I’m nearly 40, middle class and with a moderate income but can only afford to see a West End show three or four times a year. At each show I went to last week I had the good fortune of obtaining heavily discounted tickets for the best seats.

On Monday I was with a friend who is a member of PlaybyPlay which is “the London theatre community’s premier online membership organisation for complimentary and discounted tickets”  When shows need seats filling {ie they’re not doing so well} they offer the best seats out to members of PlaybyPlay who only have to pay a booking fee. For excellent, second row of the circle seats we paid £2 each. Well, my friend paid, I repaid with drinks.  With Girl from the North Country we knew someone in the cast {humble brag} so sat in the stalls, the best seats in the house ~ also known as the producers seats so called as they’re traditionally saved for big wigs coming in last minute ~ for just £30.

Each performance had me take my seat and scan the audience to asses who was sat around me. As usual I was faced with a sea of grey hair. Sadly not Sarah Harris from Vogue grey hair but middle to upper class, white, grey haired old people. They’re the ones who can afford to sit in the seats I was in and they’re the ones who the London theatre is primarily aimed at. On Monday the price of my seat normally would have been £65 {highest priced tickets at the Old Vic are £85} and on Wednesday, had I paid top dollar, would have been £145.

As a teenager {read still} I dreamt of living in London, being in West End musicals and going to the theatre maybe once a week to see great shows.  That and owning a flat in Putney. I did try {the theatre not the flat or the musicals sadly} when I first moved here. I would buy the cheapest ticket possible but was always sorely disappointed when all my £15 got me was a seat so high in the Gods I couldn’t even make out the actors facial features. £10 – £20 tickets purchased on the day sometimes meant that I would have to stand, with restricted viewing for 3 hours. As great as Cate Blanchett was in David Hare’s Plenty back in 1999, my sister and I spend the majority of that performance looking at her from the neck downwards.  Over the years I did find ways around it by standing in the cold for hours to obtain excellent returns {tickets were still £50} or getting up at stupid o’clock for front row seats just so that I would actually have a good viewing experience for my money. I wanted to go to the theatre to see the the expressions on the actors faces and be a part of what they were putting out there.

But how do you do that if you don’t have shit loads of money or know someone who knows someone and can get you a decent ticket? Who can afford £145 tickets on a regular basis? It really saddens me but it angers me more. With both shows last week I really wanted to sit down and ask someone ~ anyone ~ who those shows were actually aimed at. What was the demographic the Old Vic was thinking were going to come and see an adapted Swedish film, put into three acts set in 1907? Who did they think was going to pay full price to fill that theatre for two months? Similarly with Girl from the North Country {which started at the Old Vic last year and transferred to the West End in January} I wondered who Conor McPherson, who wrote and directed it, wanted seeing his show and talking about it afterwards? Does that even matter to him?

For me I liked Fanny and Alexander but I didn’t love it. The mention of three acts as I walked in immediately annoyed me and the subject matter was simply too niche.  With Girl from the North Country I cried and laughed and have been wanting to talk about it ever since. The show had such racial and gender diversity on stage that it was inspiring {as it also was in Fanny and Alexander} It included beautifully rearranged Bob Dylan songs, had a hugely talented cast, excellent female leads and was so feel good it seems almost a waste to simply offer it to those with  ~ I’ll say it again ~ shit loads of money.  Why do they get to see the new, interesting, inspiring pieces of work on offer?

Two years ago I went to the National to see The Suicide by Suhala El-Bushra. Of course I only went because I had a friend who knew the director and got us cheap tickets. It was an updated and modernised adaptation of a 1928 Russian satire by Nikolai Erdman which was originally banned by the Soviet authorities in 1932.  While it wasn’t great and definitely had it’s flaws it was still a really interesting subject matter and was incredibly relevant to todays society. It was set in a London council estate and followed jobless Sam {played by Javone Prince} who was trying to make ends meet. The struggle of finding a job, the trappings of todays social media and the meteoric and almost terrifying rise one can obtain from something going viral were all included. Again, I sat in a two thirds full auditorium with the usual sea of grey hair. I distinctly remember thinking what a shame it was that this theatre wasn’t full of people actually living in the very council estates it was depicting. That I wasn’t surrounded by young people, young people of colour who could come to the theatre and see themselves on stage. Who could discuss whether what they saw in front of them was a real representation of life today or was so far fetched it was missing the point. Instead I was swimming in a generation of people who didn’t even know what Instagram was….which does have it’s benefits but…you know, not in this example!

So, what is the answer to this problem of offering the arts to the elite? How do we make theatre accessible to all? I really want to find a solution to this because Girl from the North country was so thought provoking, beautiful and just bloody good that it feels almost criminal not to have it available to all. If a theatre venue can afford to produce a play that is two thirds full and offers free tickets {our £2 per ticket at the Old Vic was a booking fee and not a theatre price} why not lower all prices and actually fill the space? Why not offer one night a week of reduced ticket prices to those with low income wages?

I know the discussion will come down to rents, theatre restoration, actors wages and much more, of which I don’t know enough about, but there must be a way to declassify the arts and offer them to more than just those with…yep, you’ve heard it here before….a shit load of money.

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