London's Theatreland saw growth in ticket sales and attendance in 2012 despite Olympic fears


London’s theatres are set for a decade of growth following record advanced sales for 2013. This comes after they “cleared the hurdle” of the Olympics, and Boris’ voice on the tube, to post a surprise boost in audiences and returns last year.

The Society of London Theatre (Solt) today reported that despite the tough economic conditions and the fears over the Olympic effect, box office returns were up for the ninth year in a row.

Mark Rubinstein, president of the trade body which represents the 52 major theatres in central London, called the rise in sales “particularly astonishing” for a year that “we always knew would have exceptional challenges”.

He said: “There is no question theatre is on a high” after revealing that advanced sales for 2013 were breaking new records.

This has been boosted by demand for highly anticipated shows including Broadway hits The Book of Mormon and Once as well as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The Audience starring Helen Mirren, pictured.

Adam Kenwright, founder of London theatre promoter Aka, said that the 2012 figures was a “tremendous result” and added that this year would be “the best year ever in the West End. It will break all records”.

Ticket sales rose in London from £528.3m in 2011 to £529.7m last year. Attendances numbers were up slightly to 13.9m. The sales were boosted by new productions including Top Hat, Sweeney Todd and The Bodyguard, while Matilda the Musical and One Man, Two Guvnors continued to perform to packed houses.

The lull during the Olympics – which contributed to a 9 per cent fall during the quarter over a year earlier – could have been worse, Solt revealed.

Many of the major West End shows pulled performances on the Friday night that coincided with the Olympic opening ceremony, and the warnings of a transport gridlock meant the area was deserted early the following week.

Julian Bird, chief executive of Solt, said: “We had very direct feedback that over that first weekend the messaging was putting people off from coming into London. The great thing is with our connections and joining with others we were able to get that message right to the very top.”

The theatre group, and other West End parties, negotiated with Transport for London to drop the recorded messages by London Mayor Boris Johnson warning passengers to stay off the tubes and buses during the Olympics.

“Boris’ voice booming on the tube… there was direct feedback it was putting people off. That sort of just vanished overnight,” Mr Bird said. Mr Rubinstein added: “When it became clear that it was easy to get around, people came back.”

The average ticket price fell for the first time in a decade last year, partly because of the series of discounts to encourage people away from the sports and into the auditorium. It was £37.86 from £37.97 on 2011. Mr Kenwright revealed that 2012 saw more first time visitors and audience members under 16 than ever before.

“We have got better about making people aware that you can have a good clear seat at the theatre for little more than a cinema ticket,” Mr Rubenstein said

It was a particularly strong year for plays, with audiences up almost a 10th over 2011. Productions that saw audiences queue round the block included Nick Payne’s Constellations, and Mark Rylance in both Richard III and Twelfth Night.

The vibrant regional theatre has long fed the capital and Solt fears the impact of the cuts from the Arts Council and local authorities. “There is a danger of erosion over time,” Mr Bird said. “It is a big worry. There are many reasons that we think regional theatre is vitally important.”

2012 hits:

The Bodyguard

This new musical opened at the Adelphi Theatre in the autumn based on the film starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston. It proved a hit and has now extended its booking period to the end of September

The Lion King

The musical grossed £38.6m as it broke its box office record for the eighth consecutive year. The show, which has headed out on tour, saw 800,000 visitors last year alone.

Matilda the Musical

Matilda earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records after securing seven Olivier Awards. It has the record for the best sales in any week, and over 500,000 saw it last year.

2013 predicted hits:

The Book of Mormon

The creative team behind South Park are bringing over the show that continues to thrill Broadway. It has picked up nine Tony Awards and a Grammy.  It hits the Prince of Wales Theatre in March

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Luke Treadaway was hailed for his performance as Christopher Boone when the adaptation of the bestseller played at the National Theatre. It transfers to the Apollo Theatre at the beginning of March.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Another Roald Dahl classic is getting a musical makeover following the success of Matilda. Warner Bros. is backing this lavish production at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane to be directed by Sam Mendes.

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