West End faces crisis as theatre audiences fall

War on terrorism: Arts
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West End theatre audiences have fallen by more than 20 per cent since the terrorist attacks of 11 September, forcing three shows to close and putting the future of many others at risk.

The downturn, which is expected to be confirmed by figures out later this week, has forced theatres chiefs to consider new measures to reverse the decline.

As Peggy Sue Got Married yesterday became the third West End show since the attacks to close early, the Society of London Theatre was drawing up plans for a national marketing campaign to attract domestic theatregoers to make up for the lack of American tourists.

Kim Howells, theTourism minister, says he accepts that theatre will be a victim of the current crisis as so many West End theatregoers are foreign tourists. "In every market, in every country, there is a palpable fear of flying," he said. But he promised that initiatives will be taken which "will change West End theatre forever".

Although there is little sign of what these initiatives will be, reductions in ticket prices are likely to be high on the agenda. But these will be too late for at least three shows which are having to close because of the downturn in audiences.

Peggy Sue Got Married, a musical starring Ruthie Henshall, will close in two weeks. It only opened a few weeks ago; but since the attacks it has been playing to half-empty houses.

The musical Notre Dame, starring Danni Minogue, has also served closure notices as has the political satire Feelgood. A spokesman for Feelgood said: "It is very hard to attract people to come and watch political comedy at the moment."

The situation is far worse on Broadway where there have been six closures, and actors at some of the biggest shows – including Sir Cameron Mackintosh's productions Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera – are taking a 25 per cent pay cut.

In Britain, problems are more likely to be felt in the medium to long term. Shows such as Mamma Mia and My Fair Lady are sold out at the moment. The real test will be for future booking periods, where advance sales are said to have slowed. A West End insider said: "It will be the long-runners that will suffer, shows such as Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera. They are very dependent on American tourists."

Another potentially long-running musical, Chicago, has seen its box-office takings drop by more than 10 per cent over the past fortnight.

American tourists buy about 10 per cent of all West End theatre seats in an average year; and overseas visitors as a whole account for a third of the total.

Rupert Rimes, chief executive of the Society of London Theatre, said: "What was already a bad trading year because of foot-and-mouth and the economic downturn, is going to get worse. At the moment we are collating figures from box offices and talking about a new marketing campaign. Other initiatives may follow."

The American absence is already being noticed. The Lion King, for example, had a number of cancellations from Americans no longer willing to fly, and it refunded the ticket prices; but it immediately sold those cancelled tickets at the box office.

And the appetite for straight plays with star names has not been destroyed. Mahler's Conversion with Antony Sher, which opens at the Aldwych Theatre today, has taken £200,000 in advance bookings before a review has been printed. Excellent reviews for the revival of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming with Ian Holm have spurred box office sales after a slow start. And sales for a revival of Noel Coward's Private Lives with Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman are healthy too, with the star appeal overcoming the fear that audiences may be put off by light comedy.

The real problem may not be so much with current shows but with the prospects for future productions. Investors are said to be nervous; and producers could find it harder than ever to attract funding.

Terri Paddock, editorial director of Whatsonstage.com, which is a sounding board for theatregoers, said yesterday: "In the fortnight after 11 September, entertainment of any kind felt somewhat crass ... People seemed to attach a sense of guilt to an evening out when such horrible events were unfolding. There's still some of that and certainly many tourists are staying away from the West End."

But earlier this year, in a survey of 2,000 theatregoers on Whatsonstage.com, 64 per cent said high ticket prices were the main reason they did not go to the theatre more often. Now with the twin threats of a recession and a war, people are tightening their belts further.

Mr Paddock said: "If producers want to lure audiences out more often, I think they'll need to issue a lot more ticket offers or, better yet, across-the-board price reductions."

* The pop star Janet Jackson cancelled a string of UK dates yesterday because of fears about safety after the US terrorist attacks. The singer has "with enormous regret" pulled her entire European leg of her tour, her first for three years. She said yesterday: "Like most people the events of 11 September have troubled me enormously and I remain concerned about the foreseeable future."