Lord Foster: Access to the arts is a small but vital part of addressing societal inequalities

Posted On: 
17th June 2019

As West End ticket prices rocket, it’s time to make a song and dance about the importance of ensuring theatre productions are accessible to all, says Lord Foster

A general view of The Queens showing Les Miserables in London.
Isabel Infantes / EMPICS Entertainment, PA Images

From Shakespeare to Lloyd-Webber, Hamlet to Hamilton, the theatre has played a huge role in British culture since time immemorial. But with ticket prices climbing steadily, a trip out to London’s West End will most likely end up costing you hundreds of pounds. Though the government’s preoccupation with its own drama leaves little room for anything else, the issue of the rising cost of the theatre is worth a little time in the spotlight.

As a member of the House of Lords, I could easily be accused of seeing my priorities through ermine-rimmed glasses. However, it is ordinary people, and society as a whole that loses out when seats in theatres across the country are reserved only for those who can afford to shell out.

That’s why my colleagues and I raised this issue in a debate last Tuesday on the operation of the theatre market and ensuring that theatre is accessible to all.

The price of a theatre ticket, especially in London, has risen dramatically over the years and shows no sign of slowing down. It was not 15 years ago that we were baulking at the idea of shows charging £50 for a ticket; this pales in comparison to the £250 you could end up paying for your shot at seeing Hamilton.

Secondary ticketing is often the cause of sky-high ticket prices, and for this Hamilton’s paperless ticketing system rightly deserves praise.

Equally, there is little up-to-date data on the diversity of theatregoers, but research in 2016 showed that people from BAME backgrounds continue to be underrepresented in theatre audiences, as individuals including Sir Lenny Henry have rightly raised. It is more vital than ever that the Conservative government stops cutting funding for the arts, to ensure that diverse and marginalised stories are told on stage.

"It is more vital than ever that the Conservative government stops cutting funding for the arts, to ensure that diverse and marginalised stories are told on stage"

We also need a focus on making the theatre accessible in the most literal sense, with improved efforts to increase the ease with which theatregoers with disabilities can experience seeing a show.

It was the Liberal Democrats who, in 2014, introduced the theatre tax relief which offered productions a reduction in corporation tax if they were touring. Measures such as this, which ensure people right across the UK have the opportunity to see successful productions, are also incredibly important in ensuring the audiences in theatres are as diverse as possible.

Finally, the rising costs of tickets means that theatre audiences are increasing in age, and in average income size. We should undertake regular analysis of theatre audiences across the country to help combat these trends.

The cost of putting on a show is not a small one, and the VAT paid by productions is a sizable amount. Ensuring that this money is channelled back into the theatre, with an aim to increase the diversity of audiences, is vital. While essential services remain the priority, the Tory government must ensure funding for the arts at least matches the VAT contribution, and that production companies have a responsibility to reach out to underrepresented communities.

With Brexit looming you may ask yourself whether peers have more important things to do than discuss the cost of a trip to the theatre. You could argue that the state of the current government has enough of the buffoonery of a pantomime.

The fact, however, remains that the red velvet seats of the theatre should not only be occupied by those of us who sit on the red benches of the Lords.

Liberal Democrat peers continue to spearhead debates in the Lords on issues such as knife crime, child poverty and intergenerational fairness. Widening access to the arts is a small but vital part of addressing the inequalities of society and it is only right we hold the Conservatives to account if we wish to do anything about it.

Lord Foster of Bath is a Liberal Democrat peer