~ Posted by Anthony Gardner, July 12th 2012
"Oh, but you'd miss the theatre!" Londoners exclaim whenever someone threatens to move to the country. I find this argument completely unconvincing. Buying decent tickets for a major West End production now requires so much money and forward planning that you might as well book a return ticket from Penzance while you’re at it.
Scanning the newspaper recently, I was tempted by an advertisement for Peter Nichols’s "Privates on Parade" starring Simon Russell Beale. I reached for my credit card, conjured up the website—and stared in disbelief.
The price of a stalls seat—£85—astonished me less than the fact that the first night was five months away. The show, presumably, had yet to start rehearsals—so not even the director knew whether it would be any good. The expression "a pig in a poke" sprang to mind.
To be fair to the producer Michael Grandage, a ticket for the gods costs only £10—so in some respects this is an admirably Robin Hood-ish approach to theatre. It is true, too, that Grandage has a fine record, and his season at the Noel Coward Theatre largely offers proven plays with first-rate actors. But take "The Cripple of Inishmaan", opening—wait for it—in June 2013. What happens if its star, Daniel Radcliffe, fails to master the Aran Islands brogue, or is run over in the next eleven months?
It’s hard to think of a greater collective act of blind faith than theatre booking. Football fans buy expensive tickets and often come away cursing—but vicissitudes are an essential part of football. The idea that Radcliffe might do better in his next role is no consolation to a disappointed theatre-goer. But such is the West End feeding-frenzy that you must either pay upfront and risk seeing a flop, or wait for the reviews and accept that the seats will probably all have gone. Catch-22.
The uncertainty of our own lives is another factor. A couple of years ago, booking three months in advance, I secured two of the last tickets for Alan Bennett’s "The Habit of Art" at the National Theatre. When the day came, I found myself in Beijing.
"But you can always sell your tickets," a friend argues. Not if the production is panned you can’t. Perhaps what is needed is a theatrical hedge fund which allows you to bet against the critical success of a play: if the reviews average out at anything less than good, you recoup your investment. I feel an algorithm coming on.
Anthony Gardner previews talks for Intelligent Life and edits the Royal Society of Literature’s magazine RSL. His recent post for the Editors' Blog was My library has no books