In the current economic climate, it is incumbent on theatres to try anything and everything to attract additional audience members. Programming and pricing are generally the most favoured methodologies, while West End houses are still in thrall to stargazers.
The ever-innovative National Theatre has just announced a new initiative that, if it proves popular, could spread far more widely. From next February, a selection of performances will commence at 6:30PM. Nothing is unprecedented but a weeknight starting time this early is certainly a rarity.
According to the theatre, “this trial follows a major piece of research undertaken by the National Theatre in recent months to understand more from audiences about their post-COVID lifestyles and habits, including varying working patterns and journey times, particularly for those living outside of London. The early evening performances offer flexibility for audiences to make the most of their evening, with more time after curtain down to eat or to travel. The 6:30PM performances will fall on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with a limited number available for every new production playing on the South Bank in the first half of the year.”
Opera houses, which often feature long performances with multiple intervals have been known to go up at 6 o’clock, in order to close in time for people to get home. The same occasionally applies to productions of inordinately long plays, where it is generally assumed that most habitués will not be wanting to wend their weary way home close to midnight.
It is amazing how times change—in every sense. One of Noël Coward’s most popular productions was a nine-play cycle entitled Tonight at 8.30, which presumably didn’t start until the hour designated in the title. A century on, the standard time for curtains to go up at both plays and musicals is 7:30, although in an attempt to hide the lack of quantitative value, some very short pieces without intervals might pick 8 o’clock. Press nights typically begin at seven, primarily to allow critics who are publishing overnight reviews to get their copy in ahead of a tight deadline.
In New York, flexibility has long been de rigueur, although it can sometimes lead to confusion. A typical Broadway show may start at 7 on Tuesdays, 7:30 as the norm but 8 on days with matinée performances. To a degree, this is governed by union agreements.
Audience members fall into a number of categories. Where shows are designed to attract children, you can immediately see the attractions of a 6:30 start with a significantly earlier finish, especially on school nights. It is a shame that the experiment is not starting until February 2024, since families visiting Roald Dahl’s The Witches over the festive period will miss out.
Suburban theatres have generally preferred slightly later start times on the basis that city workers need to have time to get home and maybe even grab a bite to eat.
The food element could be relevant in this experiment. Not too many people are likely to be tempted to force down a meal at 5:30, although where the running time is relatively short, the idea of reaching a restaurant by 8:30 could be appealing. However, such a strategy might diminish receipts in the National’s cafés.
Professionals, who are amongst the few people able to afford theatre tickets, often work far beyond the traditional 9-to-5 and may find escaping for the office for a 6:30 start impossible, where disappearing for 7:30 might just about be excusable.
The other large contingent of National aficionados is the retired community. They might quite like the earlier nights, although many will still prefer matinées, allowing them to get home in daylight or soon afterwards.
Another major issue could be transport. Heading into Waterloo around 6 o’clock puts casual visitors in the midst of the commuter crush, which is no fun for anybody. One imagines that it could also require payment of premium parking rates and does not sit well with the congestion charging regulations, which will add an extra £15 to anyone who does not wish to cut his or her arrival too fine by entering the zone after 6.
Taking all of this into account, the National is to be commended in its attempt to please a wider range of prospective fans and time will tell as to whether the innovative 6:30 curtain becomes common or disappears without trace.