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As good as the National, so?

November 1, 2017

Last weekend, I very much enjoyed the beautifully crafted “Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle” at Wyndhams Theatre. Sadly, it wasn’t as busy as it could be, and I noted on message board, and in my own opinion, that had it been at the National’s Dorfman Theatre, it would have sold out instantly… interesting that the producer is an NT alumni too, of course.

The National Theatre seems to attract a certain audience. Fiercely loyal, frankly, usually white and middle-class, middle-aged to elderly, with a few well-brought-up younger theatre fanatics taking advantage of various membership schemes to nab the good tickets first and at low prices. The theatre can programme practically anything and know that the early performances at least, will sell, and that only a rare flop will have many empty seats for the rest of the run.

In the commercial West End, the audience is a little more mixed. The ‘popularist’ crowd get a bigger choice of musicals, lighter plays and the odd star in a Bill the Quill job.

The problem, as “Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle” seems to be finding, is that you can put on a “National Theatre” quality production… but without finding easily an audience… perhaps because they are all ‘at the National’?!

For me it ticked every single box. Well produced and outstandingly well acted, with an intelligent script and engaging story and characters. Had it originated in the Dorfman Theatre, like recent predecessor at Wyndhams “People, Places and Things” I do rather suspect the National’s audience would have followed it over, and extended rather than shortened the projected run.

There are far more theatres south of the river, so maybe everyone feels no need to get out their passports for the crossing. It can’t be the same ‘snob value’ that killed off the Savoy Opera experiment, when it was found that opera goers only went to Covent Garden or the ENO and wouldn’t change their habits, surely? Yes, the National does lay on the odd champagne shindig for sponsors, but it has never been somewhere to just “be seen,” it isn’t that smart. In fact, if you were after that, Drury Lane or the Haymarket Theatres are far grander all round.

If only there were a way to harness “National Theatre” quality productions with “National Theatre” audiences, a lot of great shows would have a far longer run, I think.

  1. November 1, 2017 10:24 am

    I thought ‘ooh!’ when I saw the writer and the cast, but what put me off were the ticket prices – way out of my price range, an intimate two hander in far too big a venue, and the plotline which, without wanting to appear ageist, I just thought…no! Generally, as I’m booking tickets from hundreds of miles away, the booking systems of West End venues are vague and anonymous, inflexible if I have to cancel (I haven’t managed to get refunds or swap dates when I’ve tried, even when I have managed to contact a human on a phone line) and the theatre sightlines are horrible.

    • Steve Rich permalink*
      November 1, 2017 11:04 am

      Price has a lot to do with it, it’s true. They’ve dealt with that one now, for sure.

      I was in my usual seat on row Q of the stalls, and it was fine, so I think the play would have worked anywhere in the house – partly as the staging focuses the action.

      Amen on the other booking issues – though hopefully the monkey assists a bit on sightlines, LOL. I did blog all that a couple of weeks ago, of course, too, and totally agree.

      Thanks for sharing such important thoughts, really appreciated :).

  2. Francesca Clementis permalink
    November 1, 2017 10:26 am

    I wonder if it was also hampered by mediocre reviews – 3 stars across most of the broadsheets (some 2-stars). It seems to me that there is a large theatregoing audience for this kind of play, without a big name as the draw, who are not willing to take chances when tickets are so pricey. As soon as a play racks up the 5-star reviews (like The Ferryman), the hordes start buying tickets. If you are a regular theatregoer you are prepared to take chances, accepting that this will lead to some unexpected joys (as with Romantics Anonymous!) and some disappointments. But less regular patrons are, perhaps, more assiduous in researching reviews to make more informed choices. National Theatre audiences are open-minded and will cheerfully book for plays with no foreknowledge with confidence it will have merit of some kind.

    • Steve Rich permalink*
      November 1, 2017 11:01 am

      It’s a thought. I admit I didn’t read the reviews as I didn’t want my opinion influenced. It’s a good point about “5 star” reviews, but there are plenty of plays that get them and are also not as busy as they could be, of course.

      Excellent point about regulars willing to take chances, and NT audiences the most kamikaze (as it were). On the other hand, I’m not always sure less regulars do read reviews of plays. Musicals, yes, plays perhaps less so. Either way, though, great thinking and thanks so much for such a fascinating reply :).

  3. sandra elsom permalink
    November 1, 2017 11:30 am

    I am one of those National theatre groupies …. “Fiercely loyal ……….. white and middle-class, middle-aged to elderly” …… yep, that’s me! I tend to blanket book everything as soon as their tickets are released to get the cheap tickets. Means I’ve seen some absolute belters (The James Plays) along with some absolute howlers (Common) for fifteen quid a throw. I do stray off piste too and book at other theatres and never take much notice of reviews …. One man’s meat is another man’s poison and all that, but my main concern is price. I live in London and realise just how blessed I am to have access to so much and try to take full advantage of all the cheap deals ….. there are some right Billy Bargains out there if you only go look for it. It also goes without saying that Theatremonkey is the go-to site for seat info. Long may it continue xx

    • Steve Rich permalink*
      November 1, 2017 12:49 pm

      Hi Sandra,

      LOL, nice to know I was accurate for one person at least…

      Yes, it’s true, sometimes we get lucky, and being in London and able to get cheap seats to something amazing is even better, I have to agree.

      REALLY appreciate the support of the offers page too – means a lot.

      Thanks as always :).

  4. November 1, 2017 4:23 pm

    Am with you there, i was surprised and saddened by seeing so many empty seats when i went as i was expecting it to be packed to the rafters given subject, author, actors.
    I’ve decided against a subscription to the National as i don’t see everything but would like to see other things as well. I think i spread my theatre going all across town based on actors, reviews and subjects. However, with the NT and the Almeida i like knowing what i get in terms of tickets and prices. It’s very clear how day tickets work, when they are sold and so on. With all the others it’s a lottery, you never know if they will do today tix or day tickets, how and where you can buy them and even at which price. I now i can usually get to both venues for £10-15 and how to do that if i really am keen on something. I find for the other i mostly have to pay £20-25 in cheap cases which does make a difference and sometimes i think twice about going or going again 😉
    But best seat value on tm always appreciated as guidance since i always have legroom ‘issues’ 🙂

    • Steve Rich permalink*
      November 1, 2017 4:36 pm

      Glad it wasn’t just me. By rights, this should have been very busy (on some of the other stuff I’ve seen recently, I’d go as far as selling out, LOL).

      I’ve been an NT member for over 30 years, which is worrying! It is a bit of a habit, but I do try and see as much as I can, and I do love the Almeida.

      I do have day seat info on my site – will get you there fast. As a rule information comes out with the first preview, if you want to plan.

      Cheap isn’t “cheap” any more, is it. I saw Phantom – Crawford – from a restricted view seat for £13 back in the day… Glad the advice helps. I can’t stand being cramped in either, so I do try. Luckily, some pillar / restricted seats come with legroom to compensate of course :).

      Anyway, thanks for the comments :).

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