West End theatre sales up despite epidemic

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The Independent Online

West End theatre attendances have defied the expected impact of foot-and-mouth disease on tourism to show a quarterly increase of 7 per cent on the same period last year.

Figures released yesterday by the Society of London Theatres (Solt) revealed that the success of shows such as Mamma Mia and The Lion King helped to swell visitors to 2.6 million between April and June.

The assessment has confounded fears in the artistic community that the epidemic would discourage overseas tourists from coming to Britain. According to the research, audiences are split equally between overseas visitors, those from out of town and Londoners.

The West End's appeal has also been influenced by an influx of soap and pop stars over recent months. The transfer of My Fair Lady, starring Martine McCutcheon, from the National Theatre to Drury Lane last month, met with rave reviews.

The Australian actress and singer Dannii Minogue has appeared in Notre Dame de Paris at the Dominion Theatre while the former Big Breakfast television presenter Denise van Outen is starring in Chicago at the Adelphi. The Gielgud Theatre has played host to a string of famous women in The Graduate, including Jerry Hall and Kathleen Turner.

Kids' Week, a scheme to encourage more five to 16-year-olds to visit the theatre, has also drawn unprecedented numbers, with 5,000 tickets sold in the first three hours of going on sale.

The rise in figures will come as a relief to West End impresarios including Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir Cameron Mackintosh. Both had voiced their concern that regardless of the quality of entertainment, the experience of going out in the West End looks increasingly blighted. Traffic congestion, a crumbling public transport system, spiralling crime and litter have all kept audiences away.

"It is still going to be interesting to see how the summer goes," said a spokeswoman for Solt. "The fall in tourism will have an effect ... but it isn't as gloomy as predicted."

* Children's BBC has lined up what is thought to be the first television drama prompted by the foot-and-mouth epidemic – a one-off half-hour show.