A rant at the National….

Which is weird. I love the National, and I’m never happier than when I’m dashing into shows, meeting colleagues in the arms of its foyers or spending ridiculous amounts at the bloody brilliant book shop. I’ve read ALL the diaries (and there have been many!) and I’ve so missed not hanging out on the Southbank

But some times I just can’t hold my tongue….so here goes….

One of the very few positive impacts of the Covid19 virus on the theatre industry has been a) to accelerate an audiences willingness to ‘pay’ for online performances and b) for more artists and theatre makers to think about digital iterations from the outset, and even digital first

During the early days of the pandemic we were blessed with a mass of ‘free’ online material – from NT Live back catalogue to Andrew Lloyd Webbers Show Must Go On series. Elsewhere arts organisations (including the ones I work with) raided their back catalogues for work which could be made available free and on demand.

But this couldn’t last for ever, and increasingly arts organisations have been railing against the mantra that online must mean free.  Works like Original Theatre Company’s BirdSong (for £15 catch their Haunting of Alice Bowles) and The Barn/LBT/New Wolsey  What A Carve Up  have shown that audiences are and will pay for online performance.

Unsurprisingly as ‘free’ dried up we’ve seen an increase of ‘paid for’ content. Right now you can catch Bristol Old Vics Swallows and Amazons for £4.50 or Leeds Playhouse integrated Christmas Carol from £10.

So we get to panto season – the moment when regional theatres up and down the country make around 40% of their ticketing revenues.  Across the UK theatres are testing different paid for models – Colchester Mercury experimenting with drive In cinema panto, New Wolsey Theatre (see above, now with stunning reviews – and yes I know I am biased) blended panto and many other equally successful pay to view  panto or Christmas show performance (Coventry Belgrade or Peter Duncan’s back garden offering to name but a few – heres a round up from Whats On Stage)

And then at the last minute in rides the National Theatre on its rapidly created white pantomime cow offering its own Dick Whittington ……for free

And this is where I grumble.  At best I see the National’s decision as  selfish and misguided, at worst its down right damaging. 

Misguided  because it is in effect undermining the efforts of regional theatres up and down the country to raise much needed revenues through their pantos.  Why pay to see New Wolseys Snow Queen., Colchesters Cinderella or the Belgrade’s Jack when you can see the National for free?

Down right damaging because if there is an emerging trend for people to pay for content why offer something for free?  Well to be fair that’s ok for the National who don’t usually do panto – so they can offer that for free and leave their other content behind a newly launched pay wall – £83 a year if you are interested.

And given that panto is not their bread and butter its  fine for the national to play fast and loose with the form but for many regional theatres the Christmas show is the Golden Goose who helps pay for the rest of the year

As the NT website states the NT receives a regular grant from Arts Council England of £16.7m each year, and with that grant (under ACE’s terms) recipients must play a key role in supporting the wider sector. 

At this horrendous time when every single theatre and theatre company is struggling I simply cannot see how the Nationals decision is of any support whatsoever to the wider sector!

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