Up in the Gods
Last week marked the re-opening of The Apollo Theatre in the West End, nearly four months after it closed, following the roof collapse mid-show on December 19, 2013. The event shocked London, and also the rest of the country, calling into question not only the capital’s many Victorian buildings, but public buildings as a whole.
The West End is made up of a wide range of theatre venues, from the oldest (The Theatre Royal Drury Lane) to the newest (The St James in Victoria). Researching the history of any of the venues is interesting and far reaching. Many of the older venues have actually had a number of different theatres on the site over the past hundreds of years – each getting rebuilt or redesigned either out of necessity or obligation. Obvious changes include the development of technology – The Savoy Theatre for example was the first public building to use the electric lamp – so theatre owners are constantly forced to update and refurbish their venues.
West End theatre tickets now include a ‘restoration levy’ which is added to the price as a sort of ‘tax,’ which is paid to venue owners in order to look after and preserve the venues. One of the biggest complaints from international visitors to the West End regards the comfort of the auditoriums. When paying upwards of £60 for top price seats – audiences are not willing to sit for three hours in cramped and confined conditions.
Whilst limitations in legroom and air conditioning are one thing, no one expects to enter a theatre and be let down by the actual structure itself, hence why the events at the Apollo in December came as such a shock to performers, producers and audience members. It’s easy to forget for the regular theatre goer that London is so lucky to have some of the most beautiful and historic performance venues in the world. It’s often an extension of the trip to take in the venue itself. The more successful productions seem to fully embrace the venue in which it is in and work with the designs of the theatre to enhance the overall experience. Limitations in time and space certainly restrict some performances, which often doesn’t match the capacity needed for financial success.
Broadway theatres don’t suffer in the same way as many West End venues, due to their relatively young ages. Some of London’s biggest venues are set over four levels, giving a wider range of price possibilities for producers and of course audiences. With many Broadway houses just on two levels, there is less range for ticket prices, which can be both a benefit and a shortcoming for producers.
In a theatre like The Apollo, the height and restrictions in the seats aided public funded companies such as The National Theatre to fulfil their funding obligations whilst not losing significant amounts of money. Their commitment to offering reduced price seats to attract diverse audiences is a major part of their overall ethos and justification for public funding and support. With thanks to sponsors such as Travelex they are able to offer £12 seats, as well as £5 seats for under 25 year olds as part of their ‘Entry Pass’ scheme. Larger houses with restricted seating turn the negative into a positive by using these seats as part of their discount policy – ticking the relevant box whilst at the same time not offering more expensive seats and losing gross potential revenue.
It was during the National Theatre’s production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time that the roof collapsed – just above the balcony level where the discounted £12 seats were located. After the incident the National decided it wasn’t financially possible to re-open at the Apollo, without the use of the balcony. Presumably, this is because the discounted seats would have to then be taken from more expensive areas of the house, therefore reducing the overall profit margins. The current show Let The Right One In doesn’t use the balcony, operating on just three levels, but obviously these producers can make the sums add up – most probably due to them not having to fulfil any formal discount policy.
Whilst many audience members, especially international visitors, are quick to criticise these old venues due to their size, without these extra areas, many people would not be able to afford regular visits to the theatre. As a student and poor graduate, I have been reliant on the ‘nosebleed’ seats – and they often offer a more interesting perspective of the production as a whole.
After the events of December 19 2013, it is clear that more work will have to be done in preserving the West End’s oldest theatres – but hopefully this doesn’t come at a price for those who rely on their structure to maintain sensible and accessible pricing policies.