Gangsta Granny stage company pulls shows at Leeds theatre in booking fees row

Birmingham Stage Company presents Gangsta Granny by David Walliams, which will be on stage in Leeds in May. Pic: Mark Douet
Birmingham Stage Company presents Gangsta Granny by David Walliams, which will be on stage in Leeds in May. Pic: Mark Douet
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A leading touring stage company is to stop performing at a Leeds theatre in protest at “ludicrous” booking fees levied on its tickets for school children.

Neal Foster, the manager of Birmingham Stage Company, which produces hits such as David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny and Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories for theatres nationwide, has described the fees added to tickets by The Grand Theatre as a ‘blatant racket’.

Horrible Histories had been due to be performed in Leeds in 2019, but has now been pulled. Pic: Mark Douet

Horrible Histories had been due to be performed in Leeds in 2019, but has now been pulled. Pic: Mark Douet

It comes in a week that the city of Leeds officially launches its bid to be crowned the European Capital of Culture.

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All tickets sold by The Grand are subject to a £3 booking fee and a £1 restoration levy, regardless of the price of the ticket and whether it is sold individually or to a group.

The theatre says it has had booking fees in place for more than two years and is not the only theatre to do so. The £3 fee helps pay for day-to-day costs and the £1 restoration levy helps maintain the Grade II building and fund developments such as an access lift.

Because of Leeds Grand policy, the school children of Leeds are paying more than anyone else in the country to go and see Gangsta Granny.

Neal Foster

In an email to theatre bosses seen by The Yorkshire Post, Mr Foster said: “I am a passionate believer in making theatre accessible to all and this policy will do nothing to encourage people from lower incomes.

“We cannot be part of such a blatant racket and regretfully that means we can no longer bring shows to your theatre.”

He added: “To charge every single school child an extra £3 simply for booking their ticket (which will almost certainly involve one booking paid by one school cheque) is frankly ludicrous.

“I also have no idea why a venue that has just been extensively restored requires every child to pay a further £1 restoration levy.”

The Grand Theatre in Leeds, where a �1 restoration fee is levied on all tickets.

The Grand Theatre in Leeds, where a �1 restoration fee is levied on all tickets.

Mr Foster said he wanted school party tickets for Gangsta Granny, which runs between May 3 and 7 at The Grand, to cost £12 per person, and was furious to discover fees of £4 were being levied on top. Despite dropping his base price to £10 a ticket, he says theatre bosses refused to change their position.

He wrote in his email to general manager Ian Sime: “I understand...that no flexibility whatsoever is forthcoming from the venue as your hands are tied by the board and so with regret I have asked...to cancel all further pencils with Leeds.”

Awful Auntie was scheduled to go ahead in July 2018, while Horrible Histories was due to be performed in November 2019, but neither will now visit Leeds. The May productions of Gangsta Granny will go ahead as planned.

Mr Foster, who has run the Birmingham Stage Company since 1992 and also acts in its productions, told The Yorkshire Post: “We visit 70 venues on this tour, there is no theatre that charges anything like that fee on every ticket bought.

Neal Foster, the actor and manager of the Birmingham Stage Company

Neal Foster, the actor and manager of the Birmingham Stage Company

“If you think about school groups, more often than not a teacher will make a booking for 300 children and will then send a cheque to cover the ticket prices.

“Leeds are going to charge every single child a £3 booking charge on top of their ticket and a £1 restoration fee.

“The school ticket was going to be £16. There is not a theatre we’re visiting in the country that is charging anything like that amount for a school ticket. I dropped our base price by £2 to £10 and it is still the most expensive school ticket on the tour.

“Because of Leeds Grand policy, the school children of Leeds are paying more than anyone else in the country to go and see Gangsta Granny.”

He said that so far only 30 per cent of school ticket seats have been sold in Leeds, despite the production normally selling out.

He said the high booking fees were putting off theatre-goers and potentially depriving the theatre of patrons who could keep the venue going in years to come.

Gangsta Granny is playing at 70 venues around the country as part of its nationwide tour. It went to the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield last March, and the Grand Opera House in York in September. A school booking fee of 50p was applied on both occasions.

When it was performed at the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford in July no school booking fee was applied at all. It is going to the Buxton Opera House in April.

According to The Grand’s website, £1 from every ticket sold goes towards the Restoration Fund for the continued improvement of the theatre.

It closed at the end of May 2005 for a major refurbishment costing an estimated £31.5m, before re-opening in October 2006 with a production of Verdi’s Rigoletto.

In 2015, it was announced that control of The Grand, City Varieties Music Hall and the Hyde Park Picture House was to be passed to an independent charitable trust.

A report published at the time revealed that the three venues had made deficits, before Leeds City Council grant funding, over the previous six years ranging between £196,000 and £716,000.

Chris Blythe, Chief Executive for Leeds Grand Theatre & Opera House Ltd said: “Booking fees have been in place at Leeds Grand Theatre for 2.5 years; prior to this the venue had struggled with significant deficits and the board took the decision to ensure it remained open and fit for purpose.

“As a brief overview to help understand this decision it is worth noting that the theatre does not take the ticket’s face value but generally operates on a ‘split deal’ from which the production company takes the majority.

“The remaining figure, along with the booking fee, secondary sales and some funding goes to form our income from which we pay staff and on-costs, utility bills, the general upkeep of building for example the toilets, bars, carpets curtains, lifts, technical stage equipment etc, the booking infrastructure and much more.

“Unlike producing houses, we do not receive any Arts Council Funding and as such rely on the £200k from Leeds City Council which goes to support all three of our venues; The Grand, City Varieties Music Hall and Hyde Park Picture House.

“The £1 ticket levy is used only for restoring and maintaining the Grade II Listed building; it has recently funded a brand new, and very well-received, Access Lift which allows those with mobility

difficulties an easy route from street level to auditorium, and is currently funding a new roof which in turn will support the auditorium’s ornate plaster ceiling.

“The Grand Theatre is not the only theatre in the country to apply booking fees, the majority have fees in place and will vary usually relating to funding.

“This next financial year will see us make a minimal surplus – the first for some years – which will be ploughed back into the company for the benefit of the public and visiting companies.

“It is the company’s aim to keep all the venues open and continue to bring a wealth of entertainment to the people of Leeds, Yorkshire and beyond for another 100+ years.”

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