Struggling West End counters slump with discount seats

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The Independent Culture

An off-peak discounted system for ticket prices has been introduced at three of the West End's biggest shows – Les Misérables, My Fair Lady and Phantom of the Opera – to combat a slump in bookings.

An off-peak discounted system for ticket prices has been introduced at three of the West End's biggest shows – Les Misérables, My Fair Lady and Phantom of the Opera – to combat a slump in bookings.

The move, by the Cameron Mackintosh Organisation, producer of the three shows, which are among the most successful currently being staged in London, is the first time such a concept has been tried in the mainstream West End, and will be welcomed by those pressing for cheaper theatre prices as well as theatregoers themselves.

If the scheme works and brings back audiences, it is likely to be copied elsewhere. Currently, it is believed that only the Royal Opera House offers regular off-peak discounts in London, although they are common in regional theatres. In a trial scheme run last year by some West End theatres, after a campaign by The Independent, led by arts editor David Lister, tickets were offered at West End cinema prices – currently about £11 – for selected performances.

Under the Cameron Mackintosh scheme, which started on 1 April, there is a top price of £30 for tickets for Les Misérables and My Fair Lady on Tuesday and Wednesday matinée and evening performances. The midweek matinée of Phantom of the Opera has a top price of £30, while the Tuesday and Wednesday evening performances have a top price of £40. For all other performances from Thursday to Monday in the three shows, the top price of £42.50 will remain; the discount does not apply during school holidays. Mondays are not discounted because ticket demand is high, mainly because of the patterns of tour companies.

The company is already suffering from a slump in profits, largely as a result of the drop in the numbers of American tourists visiting London in the wake of 11 September. Its pre-tax profits dropped from £11m in 2001 to £9m in 2002, a fall of 18 per cent. Sales also fell from £27.4m to £22.4m. On top of this, the company has admitted that although the outbreak of war had no immediate effect on ticket sales, there has been a tail-off in bookings in the weeks leading up to Easter.

Nick Allott, managing director, stressed that the scheme was not a knee-jerk response but the result of a year's market research on ticket sales patterns. Early indications showed the scheme had been a success, he said. But the move will also be seen as a way of propping up bookings for long-running shows – Les Misérables and Phantom have been running for 17 and 16 years respectively – and Mr Allott said it was unlikely to be copied in new shows.

Richard Knibb, the financial controller, said it was adopting the same policies as the hotel and airline industries. He told The Stage newspaper: "We feel it is better to have someone in the seats who may have paid a little less than to have the seat empty. It's a view we have come round to, particularly at times of the week when the theatre isn't very full."

LONG-RUNNING FAVOURITES

Les Miserables

Victor Hugo's epic tale chronicles Jean Valjean's journey from chain-gang member to city mayor, and then back to the gutters of 18th-century Paris. More than 48 million people have watched the stage show since its opening at the Barbican in October 1985. The London show transferred to the Palace Theatre and has become the capital's longest-running musical.

Phantom of the Opera

Andrew Lloyd Webber's adaptation of Gaston Leroux's novel opened on the London stage at Her Majesty's Theatre in October 1986, with Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman in the lead roles. It has been seen by more than 58 million people in more than 100 countries, grossing more than £3bn worldwide. The London run has now topped 6,760 performances. A film version is planned.

My Fair Lady

Lerner and Loewe's adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion has enjoyed a triumphant return to the London stage. The story of the Covent Garden flower girl Eliza Doolittle's struggle to change her accent and status has proved a perennial favourite. Trevor Nunn's National Theatre co-production opened in March 2001 and has moved on to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane having received five Olivier awards.

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