The decline of West End theatre is compounded by the rude treatment of the theatre-goers themselves
After almost half a century of ardent theatregoing I have experienced a disheartening realisation. I now hate going to plays in the West End. I find the sense of social anachronism imparted by gilded auditoria spirit-deadening and I’m dismayed by the hyping of productions as vehicles for miscast television celebrities.
But at least those features are understandable. Producers are stuck with the buildings and know that star names sell plays. What infuriates me is something else: the way purchasers of tickets are treated. The prices, monstrous to start with, climb with booking fees and soar when blocks of seats are flogged off to agencies for resale.
Even to discover which tickets are available at which prices is a temper-fraying research enterprise involving the navigation of garish websites that land you, if you’re not careful in your box-ticking, with a lifetime of junk mail. Theatres now refuse to exchange tickets for other performances, even when those performances are under-booked, or to accept returns for attempted resale. By the time you’ve bought your tickets you feel ripped off. No wonder audiences lack the sense of communal eagerness on which the theatre depends for its vitality and its social function.
How different things are at the subsidised theatres. State support for the theatre seems to me to be hard to justify in principle but to be vindicated by the practice. I admit I wasn’t wowed when, having been a devoted attender of the National Theatre since its inception, I learned from the opening statement of the present director, Nicholas Hytner, that he supposed he “didn’t mind” if white, middle-class people continued to come to plays under his regime.
But at the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company you find in audiences the feel of life that the commercial theatre has lost. There are many reasons for this, but I’m sure the decency and helpfulness that greet buyers of tickets are among them. You feel welcome, not mere financial fodder.