The more expensive the ticket, the more mediocre the fare
How much would you pay for an evening out with that special person in your life? Perhaps £10 (Dh60)? Or £200? It depends on whether your idea of a romantic night for two is a box at the Royal Opera House followed by dinner at a plush restaurant, or a couple of takeaway burgers in the park.
The spiralling cost of a good time is much on the minds of London's theatre community after a survey this week by the discount website lastminute.com revealed that the cost of attending a top West End show for an average couple now exceeds £1 a minute. That should bring tears to your eyes, even if the drama itself fails to move you.
This grim news came on the back of the announcement that the hit show Betty Blue Eyes, one of the few new and innovative British musicals in recent months, is to close early because of falling ticket sales. Nothing to do with the quality of the product it seems - the production received terrific reviews and was backed by a robust advertising campaign and a wonderful cast. Producers have denied there is any causation between seat prices and faltering interest, but the correlation makes it difficult to put two and two together and arrive at anything besides four.
For some years now, ticket prices in theatre-land have been inexorably creeping higher. When I last appeared in a hit musical in 2004, a front-row seat on a Saturday night would set you back about £50; when I tried to book the same show for a friend recently, I was astonished to find the price had increased by almost one quarter in the intervening years.
But this is only the start of the assault on your bank balance for a London night out. There are babysitters to pay for and Tube fares in and out, or if you prefer to drive instead, you will have to stump up for the congestion charge and four hours in a multi-storey car park.
The irony is that an evening in a London theatre nevertheless may seem more like a hardship rather than a night of pampered indulgence. Most of the traditional venues were built in the 19th century, when bodies were smaller, legs were shorter and stomachs less capacious. The buildings may retain a sense of faded glory with their plush auditoriums and gilded ceilings, but among the complaints by theatre goers, lack of leg room comes in second after ticket prices, with the high cost of merchandising and refreshments third, and queues for the lavatory a close fourth.
In fairness, lastminute.com's management pointed out that there were still plenty of great deals to be had if you shopped around or took advantage of deals of the day. Quite rightly too. But of course, that takes time and energy that you may not be able to spare, particularly if you are working overtime to afford the outing in the first place.
But the long-term consequence will be that exorbitant expenses will inevitably make audiences more conservative in their tastes. Why take the risk on seeing a new play by some unknown dramatist, or a musical whose score you've never heard, when for the same money you can take refuge in something you already know and you can safely anticipate?
The outcome could be a repeat of the scenario familiar on Broadway, where production costs and seat prices are even higher than in London, resulting in a diet of either stolid revivals or garish blockbusters.
The online survey does end on a high note, pointing out that despite the obstacles nearly 45 per cent of British adults still go to a live show at least once a year. So is the future rosy after all? Well, only this week an insider at one of the biggest venues in town let slip that with the capital likely to be inundated with millions of visitors for the 2012 Olympics - who are interested in sport and not much else - theatre managers have been warned to brace for a 20 per cent drop in takings next summer.
Personally, my wife ensures that I never cut financial corners in my demonstrations of love, although I have an anecdote that reins in her more extravagant tastes. The story goes that a man arrives home in high elation. "Darling," he says. "Put on your best fur coat - I've won the lottery!'
"Are you taking me out to the theatre to celebrate?" she asks in delight.
"No," he replies, "I'm leaving you and turning off the electricity."
Michael Simkins is a writer and actor based in London
Published: September 4, 2011 04:00 AM