West End slump feared as big shows struggle

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The Independent Culture

Hot tickets are to be had in London's West End. Theatregoers keen to see some of the biggest names in showbusiness should get out their credit cards.

At many performances it is possible to see Hollywood stars, such as Woody Harrelson in Night of the Iguana, simply by turning up at the box office on Shaftesbury Avenue.

While such opportunities may encourage theatregoers, signs of a West End slump are beginning to worry its leading lights. Cameron Mackintosh, the millionaire impresario, has admitted that business is slow, and curtains have come down early on some West End productions.

Earlier this month, a new Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None, starring Tara Fitzgerald, closed at least six weeks sooner than planned.

And Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens, a kitsch musical credited with attracting a new, party-loving audience, will come to the end of its run on 4 February, two weeks earlier than planned, it was announced last week.

Even The Woman in White, Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest £4m musical, is bowing out of the Palace theatre on 25 February after 19 months, comparatively early for a Lloyd Webber blockbuster, even if most producers would give their right arm for such a run. Another long-runner, the Queen musical We Will Rock You, will also depart the West End in the autumn though for somewhat different reasons. Offered a sizeable sum to vacate the large Dominion Theatre to make way for another mega-musical, Lord of the Rings, the producers of We Will Rock You are to take the show on tour.

Steven Pimlott, the director of And Then There Were None, said he feared there was a more deep-rooted problem to be addressed than normal January malaise.

"On paper, the West End has had a good season. There's been lots of good stuff, but you'd probably find this is the worst season on record. Even the blockbuster musicals aren't really solid," he said.

"We're all part of the zeitgeist. Shops haven't done well either. And there's the pound-dollar thing: there are no Americans. Maybe producers have to re-think pricing structures and how they reach new audiences. But I think it's not just a one-off."

Mackintosh said earlier this month that it was clear that audiences from outside the M25 were reluctant to come into the West End. He criticised congestion charges.

"You can stand in Piccadilly and instead of being buzzy, it's quiet. All the big musicals have had tickets to sell on the day and that's unusual," he said.

Yet there are always shows that people want to see. When the musical Billy Elliot opened a new booking period on 13 January, it did £500,000 worth of business in 48 hours. The stage production has now out-grossed the film's box-office takings.

And audiences elsewhere are strong. At the National Theatre, which benefits from lower ticket prices than much of the West End and a loyal audience, shows such as Pillars of the Community by Henrik Ibsen, Paul by Howard Brenton, Two Thousand Years by Mike Leigh and Coram Boy, a book adaptation embracing orphans and Handel, are all sold out. The History Boys, Alan Bennett's take on education, has returned to packed houses, too.

The Get into London Theatre initiative, now in its fourth year, offers cut-price tickets in an attempt to overcome some of the problems associated with the beginning of the year when business is notoriously slow. "This year, so far, the sales have trebled from last year," a spokeswoman said. Terri Paddock, the founder of whatsonstage.com, said she believed slow sales were a minor problem compared to previous poor patches, when shows were closing within days of opening.

"It's more a clearing out in anticipation of what's to come. It was a very successful 2005 and we have major launches next week withEvita and Wicked and we already have Spamalot announced."

Early closures

* DUCKTASTIC!

Albery Theatre

11 Oct 2005 - 19 Nov 2005

Starred Sean Foley and Hamish McColl

"Half the time you don't know whether to gasp or giggle. You end up not exactly transported, but winded and feeble" - The Observer.

* THE WOMAN IN WHITE

Palace Theatre

28 Aug 2004 - 25 Feb 2006

Stars Ruthie Henshall

"The Woman in White is about as spine-chilling as a Teletubbies tea party" - The Observer.

* AND THEN THERE WERE NONE

Gielgud Theatre

14 Oct 2005 - 14 Jan 2006

Starred Tara Fitzgerald

"It's a cleverly tweaked piece of work, adding a sheen of glamour, a streak of knowing camp comedy, and a darker edge to the ruthless retributive justice that governs the proceedings" - The Independent

* SAUCY JACK AND THE SPACE VIXENS

The Venue - Leicester Square

24 Nov 2005 - 4 Feb 2006

Stars Faye Tozer

"At a certain point you just have to give in gracefully to the onslaught of glitz, camp and sheer kitsch that is this cult musical and start clapping along" - Evening Standard

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