Stage producers I’ve spoken to say the restoration levy charged by London theatre operators puts people off from going to the theatre. West End theatregoing is expensive enough, they say, without another charge being added on to the ticket price.
All the theatre chains have started adding between 75p and £3 ($1-$4.3) per ticket to help pay for building upkeep. Frankly, I think this is a bit of a con. I mean, if I go to a supermarket such as Sainsbury’s or Waitrose, they don’t ask me to donate money to fix up any of their stores. And cinemas don’t tack on a building-maintenance charge either.
On the other hand, producer Paul Elliott (The Shawshank Redemption) argues that at least theatres are being honest. Supermarkets still charge you a restoration levy – it’s just hidden in your shopping bill.
Each of the big UK theatre chains administers its own restoration levy. It is not collected centrally, which means you cannot find out how much has been collected in total.
Indeed, only Ambassador Theatre Group will say how much it has raised so far. ATG has generated about £300,000 through its £1 per ticket levy. The money has been spent on new seats and carpets, decorating public areas, upgrading toilets and installing air conditioning in theatres that had none. The group says the levy has given it the confidence to practically double the £2.5 million a year it used to spend on its sites: £1.5 million on major capital projects, plus another £1 million on general maintenance and repair. Theatres owned by ATG include the Apollo (Wicked) and the Savoy (Legally Blonde).
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group cannot say how much it has raised to date. It only began rolling out its 75p per ticket levy across its shows in January 2009, it says. The final theatre was added earlier this year, which means that it is too early to say how much money has been raised. RUG’s current restoration project focuses on London’s largest theatre, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane (Oliver!). One producer tells me Drury Lane needs about £40 million spent on it. It’s probably London’s most valuable theatre, one of only two Grade 1 listed venues. RUG has just completed installing air conditioning in this venerable building – all of which has to be invisible inside the 200-year-old auditorium.
Of the other big chains, neither Nimax – whose sites include the Lyric (Thriller Live) and the Garrick (All the Fun of the Fair) — nor Delfont Mackintosh – whose theatres include the Gielgud (Hair) and the Prince Edward (Jersey Boys) — returned emails or phone calls.
It may be that Nimax and Delfont Mackintosh have been spending their restoration levies on new carpets and toilets too, but frankly, when I’m paying nearly £70 a ticket, one would expect a working loo.
Something else I cannot understand is the booking fee. Why should I pay a surcharge on a ticket for the privilege of the theatre collecting my money in the first place?
“My anger is that everything’s always hiked onto the ticket price,” one producer tells me, “whether it’s the restoration levy or the booking fee. But those are always left intact when tickets are sold off cheaply. It’s the producer who always takes the hit.”
Elliott though is sceptical as to whether an extra 75p or £1 is going to make any difference to anybody spending on average £40 for a West End ticket. “People will walk over hot coals if they really want to see something,” says Elliott.
None of the theatre producers I spoke to would go on the record. They all have to negotiate with the circuits when booking theatres for their shows, so they literally cannot afford to fall out with them.
One producer says that when impresarios such as Lloyd Webber or Cameron Mackintosh bought these sites, they must have had structural surveys done — just like anybody else buying a new house. The surveys would have highlighted any structural problems. Why should theatre operators expect the public to maintain their investments? “Why don’t they put their hands into their own pockets and do them up themselves?” he asks.
“Theatre owners should pay for their own buildings themselves,” agrees another.
According to the Sunday Times Rich List, Lloyd Webber is worth £700 million, while Mackintosh is worth £635 million.
It was Mackintosh who originally devised the restoration levy. Mackintosh was worried about what would happen to his theatres after he died. He imposed a 75p restoration levy to build up a building maintenance war chest. The original idea was that this war chest would only be opened after his death. He was going to personally pay for their upkeep until then. My understanding is that this has now changed.
Other operators introduced the levy after the failure of the “Act Now” campaign, which lobbied for £250 million of National Lottery money to save the West End’s theatres. An independent report commissioned by Theatres Trust said that West End Theatreland needed that amount spending on it. Impresarios proposed a £1.50 levy – half of which would have been spent on restoring crumbling buildings, and the rest on supporting new playwrights. The lobbying fell on deaf ears.
“It was obvious that funding for this was not coming from the government, so we had to think long and hard how we could achieve some of the essential improvements,” says David Blyth, ATG’s operations and building development director, tells me.