London theatres close as economic downturn bites

The lights have gone out in five West End theatres, amid fears that traditional plays are being shunned by cash-strapped audiences in favour of musicals. Just seven non-musical plays are being staged in London's theatreland, compared to 24 musicals.

The Apollo theatre will reopen in September with Rain Man. However, along with the Comedy, Gielgud, Lyric and Novello, it is set to remain closed for the summer.

The chief executive of two of the theatres said the downturn meant people were turning away from high-brow plays. Nica Burns, who runs the Apollo and Lyric theatres, said: "When times are hard, people are more likely to spend what little money they have on being cheered up by a musical."

The theatre critic Mark Shenton said: "Tourists – particularly the Americans who traditionally keep the theatre alive in the summer – are staying away, thanks to the weak dollar and a recession that is starting to bite."

Bill Kenwright, whose company produced Evita and Joseph, is said to have almost given up on producing plays because of losses on recent productions.

And some critics fear that the West End is turning into a "virtual Disneyland". Nicholas de Jongh warned there is a danger it will become, "festooned with musicals".

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