West End theatres in melodramatic story of boom and bust

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The Independent Culture

Early closures of several high-profile productions and record levels of empty seats have triggered gloomy predictions of the demise of London's theatreland.

Early closures of several high-profile productions and record levels of empty seats have triggered gloomy predictions of the demise of London's theatreland.

Bookings until the end of June were down more than 2 per cent on last year and 2003 had a record level of empty West End theatres, according to the annual report of the Society of London Theatre.

But just as the pessimists prepare for the curtain to fall, an all-singing, all-dancing rescue is in sight. Ticket agencies reported an upturn in sales last month as tourists flooded back into the capital for the summer. And £17m of advance tickets have been sold for the three blockbuster musicals which are set to be this autumn's theatre saviours.

Woman in White and The Producers are selling well, but biggest of all is Cameron Mackintosh's stage version of the Disney film Mary Poppins, which has already taken £10m at the box office.

Richard Pulford, of the Society of London Theatre, said: "It's a highly volatile business. Whenever you take a snapshot, you're likely to be proved wrong within a fortnight. At the moment things are looking up. Even some of the long-running musicals have had some very good figures - and there are some big musicals opening in the autumn. It would be nice to think we might end the year as a whole better than last year - though it's hard to tell."

Graham Sheffield, artistic director of the Barbican, has criticised the West End for the conservatism of its shows and pointed to the successes of its more adventurous programme as the way ahead. The Black Rider, a challenging work with words by William Burroughs, sold out 70 per cent of its tickets across 35 performances.

But Mr Pulford said that such figures would be a commercial disaster in the West End, where a show needs to run for 20 to 25 weeks with decent houses - at least 80,000 people - to stand a chance of making a return.

This week's announcement that the actress Imogen Stubbs' writing debut, We Happy Few, will close at the end of the month instead of November as planned is evidence of the unpredictable nature of the theatre audience.

Empty seats may not be a disaster for a long-running show. "Once you've recouped the investment, it doesn't necessarily need a huge audience to maintain commercial viability," Mr Pulford said.

Terri Paddock, of the whatsonstage.com website, was optimistic that the doom and gloom of recent months had been seasonal rather than evidence of terminal decline. "I'm concerned about the numbers of plays opening - I'm afraid that the West End is going to become a place for musicals. But it seems to me there's a lot more excitement around," she said.


Mary Poppins: Prince Edward Theatre, Old Compton Street

Opening 15 December. Stars Laura Michelle Kelly.

Advance bookings: £10m

The Producers: Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

Opening 9 November

Starring Lee Evans and Richard Dreyfuss. Advance bookings: £4m

Woman in White: Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue

Opening 15 September

New Andrew Lloyd Webber. Advance bookings: £3m