William Russell considers ticket returns, non-performing stars, and other crises.
It does not happen very often that the star falls ill and the understudy has to take over, but that is what happened at the Coliseum where Glenn Close, who was starring in Sunset Boulevard, got the flu. Ria Jones, her understudy, had actually first sung the role of Norma Desmond in 1991 when Andrew Lloyd Weber was workshopping the show, took over to initial fury. But by the end of the night she received great acclaim.
Not all the audience was happy that Thursday evening. The management had decided not to refund or change tickets, which it seems is within its rights to do, and the performance was delayed for some 20 minutes amid uproar, and a great deal of argy bargy as people who had come solely to see Close complained they would not otherwise have bothered and demanded their money back. They had bought expensive tickets some costing as much as £150 and in some cases, and had opted for an overnight hotel as well. So they had grounds for feeling aggrieved.
Those who remained, and the numbers who decided to go were not all that numerous on the following two nights and at the matinee, made the no refund attitude unfortunate.
It would not, it seems on the face of it, cost the management all that much and would have prevented a lot of ill feeling. The Thursday night audience duly gave Jones a standing ovation at the end – and each successive time she appeared.
Ria Jones is not a star, but she is someone who has worked impressively in West End musicals for several years. She played Evita aged 19, was in Chess, was Grizabella in Cats and Fantine in Les Miserables. She has also toured as Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques, has appeared at the Albert Hall, sung with pretty well everyone there is in concerts, been on Friday Night Is Music Night and on the bill at Royal Variety shows.
But she is not a “name” – like so many other hugely talented actresses who have appeared in West End musicals of whom the word star tends to get loosely used by some. Close on the other hand is, by any standards, a star and there is no doubt that Sunset Boulevard had been marketed on one thing only – the presence of Close, who had played Norma on Broadway, in the role.
The semi staged production was slick, the supporting cast very good, if, like Jones herself, none of them were bottoms on seats people, and the 51 piece orchestra, the English National Opera orchestra, better than the usual West End musical pit bands by miles. Whatever else the audiences got – and Jones delivered the goods – they probably heard the score of Sunset Boulevard played as well as it is ever likely to be.
But it does raise the question of what one is entitled to when the promised show is not there. Had it simply been a revival of Sunset Boulevard then the absence of the leading lady would not have been grounds for a refund, but when what you are selling is not the show but the leading lady it is arguably another matter. However while some managements may take a sympathetic approach you are not actually entitled to a refund if a headline star does not appear.
If you are prevented from attending a show there are grounds for appealing and you could probably get the face value of the ticket back. Start with the Front of House manager, proceed to the operations manager if it is a chain of theatres, or contact the Society of West End Theatres and state your case – and do not lose your temper. Sometimes the terms of sale are printed on the back of tickets and sometimes what will result will depend where you booked the ticket. If you cannot use a ticket then some organisations – the Royal Opera House for instance – will exchange it for another date for a small fee, or try to resell it also for a fee, but if they do not manage a sale that is the end of the matter.
It is possible to get insurance to cover such crises and when you are booking something for only one reason – to see a specific performer – it is wise to consider the possibility that they might not appear and take that precaution.