West End in great health as SOLT reports record-breaking year

The health of the West End theatres is continually coming under scrutiny as each year’s in-crop of plays and musicals are dissected and discussed in regards to what they are bringing to the table. Are there too many film-adapted musicals? Do we need to see a greater emphasis on new work? Is stunt casting beneficial or harmful? Is theatre ‘dumbing down’? For both those in and out of the industry, theatre is an art form which evokes passion in its followers and everyone has an opinion as to what the West End does/doesn’t need. The exploration of each production currently running there and the relevance of its place would spark a debate enveloping many differing opinions and which would probably never achieve resolution. Those worrying about the West End’s current state of health need only look at the 2013 Box Office figures recently published by The Society of London Theatre (SOLT) though.

The society, which represents 52 major venues in London, has reported a record-breaking year for theatre revenue and attendances, with gross sales of £585,506,455 which is up 11% from 2012. More people visited the theatre than ever before, with 14,587,276 theatre-goers enjoying the assortment of shows in the West End throughout 2013; that means that despite a slightly lower number of performances from the previous year, an additional 600,000 people attended shows which is a 4% increase.

Attendance numbers for musicals surpassed £8 million, showing that the genre continues to gain a wider popularity and appeal. The West End’s two longest-running musicals, Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera, are still top draws with theatre fans, as are the hits of more recent years such as Matilda The Musical and Wicked. 2013 introduced several new shows to the West End though, which have attained a high-profile presence since opening and played a large part in boosting attendance for the year. Broadway transfers Once and The Book of Mormon both received critical acclaim and been deemed as very welcome additions to the UK theatre scene; the latter has continually played to 100% capacity and employs the same daily lottery system used in the US to meet ticket demand. Sam Mendes’ Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, the latest Roald Dahl story to be adapted into a musical, has also lent a helping hand. More than half a million people have been to see the show, which stars Douglas Hodge in the iconic role of Willy Wonka and boasts an impressive child cast. I myself visited the production at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane just a few weeks ago, and wrote a glowing review of it after a thoroughly entertaining evening too.

The West End’s musicals must share the credit with its offering of plays though, which have also had a particularly strong year. They have been responsible for bringing in over 4 million theatre-goers in 2013 thanks to such stage productions as The Audience at the Gielgud Theatre, which starred renowned stage/screen actress Helen Mirren. Other well-known stars have helped to attract people to performances, such as Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple of Inishmaan, Lenny Henry in Fences and the double treat of David Walliams and Sheridan Smith in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to name a few. The National Theatre is a hugely vital cog in the wheel of plays, having staged a number of highly successful plays such as the sold-out production of Othello which marked its 50th anniversary, and the adaption of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time which transferred into the West End in 2013. The Almeida’s Chimerica also gained great acclaim, whilst One Man, Two Guvnors continued to be a popular choice with fans at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. The Michael Grandage Company Season at the Noel Coward Theatre was a big hit too, as was Regent Park’s Open Air Theatre, whose 2013 season was the most successful yet. Through such productions as The Sound of Music and To Kill a Mockingbird, the company drew 167,613 visitors last year; that’s 25,483 more people than the Open Air Theatre’s previous standing record.

SOLT president Mark Rubinstein said: “I am delighted that we can announce a record year for London theatre attendances as well as a tenth year running of year-on-year growth in ticket income.” He went on to speak about the annual figures, adding that they “pay testament to the quality, vibrancy and enduring popularity of the London stage, which, despite, a difficult economical climate, continues to pull in the crowds thanks to the world-class entertainment on offer and inclusive pricing structures.”

Everyone will always have their thoughts about what’s good for the West End and how it can be improved, but as the SOLT report shows, it seems to be doing okay just the way it is. As Rubinstein said: With the combined Box Office advance sales also reaching new heights in December, we are looking forward to another year of success stories for our theatres in 2014.” The number peaked at over £70 million in December. There is a lot more for theatre-goers to look forward to in 2014 after all, with new X Factor musical I Can’t Sing! and the return of Miss Saigon serving as anticipatory delights for fans of musical theatre. The West End is clearly in a great state of health and here’s hoping the coming year continues to see it go from strength to strength.

By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)

Thursday 30th January 2014