What do you really want from a theatre programme? I know what I don't want: to be charged £3 upwards for an ugly piece of print which is either a bit of shameless self-promotion for the show for which you've already bought a ticket, or an ill-designed and uninformative vehicle for the selling of advertising space.
You can tell quite a lot about a regional theatre's audience by the number of adverts for private schools and hand-crafted kitchens there are. Most of us can live with the adverts as long as there is interesting content, and not just a thematically related article largely culled from the internet. If there's no proper content (and no, pages of rehearsal pictures do not count as proper content), I'd prefer just to have a free cast list.
That said, I do like to read the cast credits in a proper programme, so long as they are brief and to the point. Programme biographies have changed a great deal over recent years, evolving from a simple list of the place trained and stage appearances made, to full-blown opportunities of self-expression. I'm not entirely adverse to some humour, but we surely don't need the full life story.
Those working in musical theatre seem particularly prone to viewing the theatre programme as a printed try-out for an Oscar acceptance speech. Friends, vocal coaches and fellow cast members are thanked for their love and support and performances are sometimes even dedicated to "Nan, who is sadly no longer with us." Other people don't seem to feel the need to dedicate their day's work on the factory floor or hotel reception to relatives, living or dead. There was one musical where one of the performers dedicated his performance to "you, the audience", which this member of the audience found particularly creepy.
In my experience, anything that calls itself a souvenir programme is a complete waste of money (unless the theatre trip is a birthday treat for someone under the age of 12 who really does need a souvenir), and should be treated with the same suspicion as all other merchandising – including T-shirts, key-rings, mugs and aprons (yes, aprons, you know who you are).
I used to keep theatre programmes, and I still have some dating from my teens. Turn the musty pages and I'm suddenly transported back to a theatre experience that I thought I'd forgotten. A good programme can be a time machine, jogging your memory and making past performances suddenly seem vivid and alive.
Fortunately there are some theatres out there who really know what they are doing when it comes to programmes. NT programmes are always a seriously good read, but a free cast list is available too. The RSC really know how to put a programme together that gives added value to your night out. Others should take note.
By Lyn Gardner, Theatre Critic at The Guardian
This BLOG first appeared on The Guardian Theatre Blog and is posted with the kind permission of the author.