Two Theatreguys, Sixty Shows (or thereabouts!) 
  
Our report on 2011 
 
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We should have known that it was going to be a busy year: when I wrote our annual report in December 2010, we had already booked 18 shows for 2011. Now by the end of the year, we have organised 61 coach trips to about 60 different shows - with a few shows offered more than once and sometimes two different shows on one evening, it's difficult to keep track of our numbers - but we have fulfilled our mission to offer you a wide range of entertainment at affordable prices.  
 
And ticket prices continued to rise. In some theatres, the high-priced Premium seating spread like a fungus across the auditorium, and certain star-names on the marquees meant that minimal group discounts (if any) were offered. Nevertheless, we were able to obtain reductions of £25 (sometimes more) on tickets for individual shows. In fact, the average cost of a ticket was £33.96 - 56p less than last year. I was amazed that at the end of 2011, we could see a world-class production of La Traviata at the Royal Opera House for only  £31.20! 
 
We’re often asked “How do you choose what you offer to your group?” Sadly, we don’t have a crystal ball, and all we can do is rely on the past form of the cast and creative team - and instinct. It was obvious that Luise Miller and Anna Christie at the Donmar were going to be highlights of the year, while the all-male Iolanthe at Wilton’s Music Hall was more of an act of faith. We do of course respond to popular demand (Ghost) and sometimes there are no-brainer choices, such as Kevin Spacey in Richard III. We cross our fingers and hope for the best.  In my experience, no matter how good a show is, there is always someone who doesn’t enjoy it; and no matter how bad a show is, there is always someone who does enjoy it. We try to look on the bright side and “see the robins not the crows” (and where does that come from?). 
 
It was a year of major casting, which kept box-offices busy. Derek Jacobi in King Lear, Keira Knightley and Elizabeth Moss in The Children’s Hour, David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Much Ado About Nothing, and Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy, as well as Kevin  Spacey - all drew the crowds. But we had to miss out on Robert Lindsay and Joanna Lumley in The Lion In Winter as at their priceswith no group discount we would not fill a coach. 
 
But it was the National Theatre that housed the most spectacular and unexpected runaway successes: Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating roles in Frankenstein, and James Corden getting back into most people’s good books in One Man, Two Guvnors. We wonder if there will be a second life for Frankenstein, but those Guvnors look set to run and run both here and on Broadway.  
 
Michael Grandage prepared to leave the Donmar, where he has presided over a historic era. Wait till you see his valedictory production of Richard II. Rob Ashford  blew the dust off Anna Christie - the title that springs to my lips when I’m asked what was the best thing I saw this year. That had celebrity star-casting at bargain-basement prices and could have filled the Olivier instead of the Donmar. It also provided the best acting performances of the year. 
 
Elsewhere, other performers caught the eye. I wondered how Tracie Bennett survived a week of performing as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow, never mind a long run and an extensive tour. Sophie Thompson and Stephen Campbell Moore both gave two sharply contrasting performances in Clybourne Park. Ben Miles revealed unsuspected depths opposite an enigmatic Kristen Scott Thomas in Betrayal, both proving that this much-revived play is always worth seeing, as each new interpretation exposes more of its facets. Claudie Blakely, Mark Bonnar and Conleth Hill graced a Cherry Orchard that looked definitive. If Ruth Wilson, Jude Law and David Hayman don’t win all the major awards for Anna Christie, there should be a public enquiry, and Jude should certainly win the coveted Best Entrance by a Leading Performer Award. Under Jamie Lloyd’s direction, Douglas Hodge revitalised Inadmissible Evidence and brought a repellent character to vivid life. 
 
There were a few mysteries. How did we manage to sell 104 tickets for Blithe Spirit this year, when we only sold 30 for the same play the last time around? Why did I have to cancel 10 reserved tickets at the National for Frankenstein through lack of interest when I still had space on the coach? (And how irritating was it when people later wanted those tickets but were too late asking for them? The theatre had sold out so the moral is - take risks, don’t wait for reviews - see the ‘West End proverb’ on our website front-page heading!) Why did Terence Rattigan have such a good year this year, when our group took so little interest in the splendid After the Dance last year? Why was it a struggle to sell 40 tickets for Chicken Soup with Barley with Samantha Spiro and Danny Webb giving the performances of their careers, while the coach filled quickly for The Kitchen by the same writer? Chris Millar, the Ticketing Manager at the Donmar, smiled sagely and told us, “When you know the answer to those questions you can sell it to West End producers and become very rich.” 
 
As always, we’re grateful to Chris, Jon and Marcus at the Donmar for sorting out our bookings. Bouquets also go to Sophie at the Royal Opera House, who has been incredibly helpful, and to Tina at the Almeida. Special mentions for the box office managers at the Cambridge Theatre (Matilda) for help and advice, and at the Haymarket - I was a disgruntled customer, but he gave a perfect demonstration of good customer relations. Conversely, I didn’t think things could get worse with the box-office at the National but I was mistaken - the younger box-office staff do well but the ‘old guard’ disappoint. 
 
The excellent service from Cook’s Coaches and their drivers continued, and that took away a lot of the pressure. 
 
Some of you will have heard that two customers refused to pay for tickets they ordered and I had paid for, and I am very grateful to my solicitor for acting on our behalf to resolve that situation. 
 
So was it worth it, the hassle and the excitements, the stress and the satisfactions? Yes, of course it was - we enjoy it all, and we’re very grateful to everyone who has supported us this year, and indeed in previous years. It’s a not-for-profit hobby for us - that’s the main reason we can keep our prices lower than those who make a business out of show business. I was very touched when one of the last passengers to get off the coach this year suddenly said, “You’ve been responsible for some of the happiest evenings I’ve had this year!” 
 
And we have another 18 shows already booked to look forward to in 2012! 
 
Fredo   22/12/11
NOW HAVE A GO AT OUR 2011 CHRISTMAS QUIZ - Click  HERE