Playwright Richard Bean's recent denunciation of the damage ticket touts are doing to London's theatre shines the spotlight on a business which, while technically legal, is making a mockery of the industry's attempts to attract a new young audience. Online resale websites make it easy for the touts to do business well away from the public eye; you can still see the occasional scalper on the pavement in the West End, but the big profits are made online.
The National Theatre told me that it recently intervened to cancel a staggering £70,000 block-booking of tickets for its hit show One Man, Two Guvnors at the Haymarket. Although it says this case was extremely unusual, it's part of a worrying trend. Professional touts who used to concentrate on big-ticket sports events and Barry Manilow concerts have realised that straight theatre can offer them big profits for a relatively small outlay.
"Theatres are waking up to this," says Jonathan Brown of the Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers, whose members are banned from reselling tickets at a profit. A few years ago theatres and mainstream ticket retailers lobbied the last government to make touting illegal, but failed.
This year Shakespeare's Globe has become a target for the first time; 40% of its tickets sold in 2011 cost only £5, the price for a "groundling" standing place in the yard. This price hasn't changed since the theatre opened its doors some 15 years ago, and offers an unprecedented bargain for cash-strapped students and others on a tight budget.
This coming September, the Globe's former artistic director Mark Rylance will be joined by Stephen Fry for a limited run of Twelfth Night, in which Rylance will reprise his role as Olivia and Fry will play Malvolio. Tickets quickly sold out; the £5 yard tickets are now being offered online by touts for £105, more than 20 times their face value. Seated places are being sold at even higher prices – £174 for the lower gallery, and online prices to see Rylance as Richard III are similar.
It was the same story at the Young Vic last year when Michael Sheen played Hamlet and tickets that cost around £20 were offered online for over £100. Tickets to see Jonathan Pryce play King Lear at the Almeida next September are already on offer at £99.
Another small theatre which has been targeted is the Donmar, which has less than 250 seats; tickets have always been in short supply here, but a few weeks ago touts were offering seats for its hit The Recruiting Officer for an eyewatering £190, around six times their face value.
But when a hit show with star actors means tickets are hard to find, even large theatres such as the National's Olivier stage, with more than 1,000 seats, are targeted. Tickets to see Simon Russell Beale and Alex Jennings in Collaborators are on sale at £130 a pop.
Websites such as getmein.com, viagogo.com and seatwave.com, which control the bulk of the resale or secondary market in tickets, tell purchasers that their sellers are all vetted, that there are no legal problems, and claim the government approves of "a well-functioning and honest resale and exchange market" for cultural events. Getmein.com, says on its website that it and its parent agency, the online ticketing giant Ticketmaster, are "setting new ethical standards for consumers."
But the theatres affected, most of which have charitable status, don't see it that way. Shakespeare's Globe warns that its conditions of sale prohibit resale at a profit, and any such tickets become void. "We therefore reserve the right to take action that may result in these tickets becoming null and void, if we believe them to have been resold without the organisation's consent," says spokeswoman Rebecca Storey. "Shakespeare's Globe is a registered charity, receiving no government subsidy, and relies on the goodwill of its audiences who support its ethos as accessible theatre."
Upstream at the National, there's a similar warning from head of press Lucinda Morrison: "The National takes the issue of reselling tickets at hugely inflated prices extremely seriously; we totally disapprove of the practice since it undermines all our efforts to price tickets fairly and accessibly. It's incredibly frustrating for us to see tickets for Collaborators on getmein.com at up to nine times their face value." The theatre warns that anyone who has bought a ticket which has been resold at a premium will be refused admission.
But it's hard to see how theatres can enforce this policy without checking the names of every member of the audience. "Do you really want to start turning people away at the door?" asks Jonathan Brown. Resale of football tickets was banned in 1994 to help security at grounds, though there are plenty of websites which appear to flout this law with impunity. Theatres have no such protection. Society of London Theatre (Solt) chief executive Julian Bird says touting is now the "single biggest issue" which theatreland has to deal with.
Source: The Guardian Theatre Blog