Theatreland packs them in with record takings

Musicals performed strongly but the play's the thing that attracted London audiences

Economic doom and gloom may be sweeping the nation but London's theatres are still packing in the punters, with ticket sales hitting an all-time high for the eighth year in a row.

Musicals such as Les Miserables and Matilda The Musical kept the tills ringing, but the biggest growth was in plays. Hits including War Horse, Jerusalem and Noises Off helped lift total box office takings to a record £528.3m in 2011.

The Society of London Theatre (Solt), which tracks box office revenue in the capital, said the takings were up 3.1 per cent on 2010, the third time sales had topped £500m. This is up from £112m 25 years ago. Mark Rubinstein, president of Solt, said. "It's wonderful, theatre is in vogue," before adding: "People are being brought in by great plays. Theatre provides experiences you can't have in other ways."

Musical revenues rose 1 per cent to £328.8m. The Royal Shakespeare Company's Matilda, whose music and words were written by Tim Minchin, has played to sell-out audiences since arriving in the West End from Stratford. Mamma Mia! posted record sales for the Prince of Wales Theatre taking £580,000 in the week after Boxing Day, while The Lion King had its highest annual takings in the West End in 2011.

Caro Newling, director of Neal Street Productions, which co-produced Shrek The Musical, said: "There is fundamentally a huge appetite for theatre. When it delivers people want to come back." The revenues from plays rose a tenth to £117.8m. Among the highlights, Frankenstein at the National Theatre was a total sell-out, while Jerusalem, starring Mark Rylance, saw theatregoers queuing overnight for tickets in the final week of its run in London. The Ladykillers took the highest figure ever in a single week at the Gielgud. The Royal Court played to 90 per cent capacity. Other shows, including opera, dance and performance pieces, saw revenues rise 1 per cent to £81.7m.

Sales would have been even higher if it were not for an "unusually high number of dark weeks", according to Rubinstein. This was responsible for attendances falling 1.7 per cent year-on-year to 13.9 million.

New plays forced theatres to close while the new staging was set up, with dark weeks rising from 85 in 2010 to 146. New productions included The Wizard of Oz and Ghost The Musical.

Despite fears raised by Andrew Lloyd Weber, that the Olympics will have a negative effect on Theatreland, Rubinstein predicted a strong year in 2012.

Wonderful West End: lure of the greasepaint

Matilda The Musical Based on the Roald Dahl book with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, Matilda arrived at the Cambridge Theatre in October to rave reviews.

Mamma Mia! The musical based on Abba songs has now been seen by 6.6 million people in London, and last year became the first Western musical ever to be staged in China.

War Horse The play about a Devon boy and his horse Joey who head off to the First World War has been seen by more than 1.7 million people worldwide, and has been adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg.

Jerusalem Jez Butterworth's play started at the Royal Court and transferred to the West End and Broadway. Its return to the West End had fans queuing overnight.

Anna Nicole The Royal Opera house put on "a celebrity story of our times" about Anna Nicole Smith, which sold out before its opening night.

Swan Lake The English National Ballet's production sold out 96 per cent of its available seats over seven performances and took £500,000.

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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