Entertainment & Arts

West End ticket sales hit £528m in 2011

Danielle Hope in The Wizard of Oz
Image caption The Wizard of Oz was one of 2011's new productions

The West End enjoyed record box office sales in 2011 for an eighth consecutive year, according to figures released by the Society of London Theatre (Solt).

Takings topped £528.3m in 2011 - up 3.1% on a like-for-like basis on the previous year.

Due to the closure of a number of theatres while new shows were set up, the overall attendance was 13.9m - down 1.73% on 2010.

According to Solt, though, the average audience at each performance was up.

The Society said the growth in sales could be attributed to sell-out productions such as Matilda the Musical and the continued success of Les Miserables, now in its 26th year.

Play revenue also received a 10% boost thanks to such sold-out productions as Frankenstein, Richard III, Jerusalem and One Man, Two Guvnors.

Last year saw several of London's bigger theatres welcome such major new productions as The Wizard of Oz, Shrek the Musical and Rock of Ages.

Solt said this led to an unusually high number of "dark" weeks - when theatres are closed to the public - while set installations took place, causing a fall in overall attendance.

Last year saw 146 dark weeks, when there were only 85 in 2010.

"We are extremely proud that our theatres have yet again gone on to achieve another record-breaking year of sales," said Solt president Mark Rubinstein.

"Despite the prevailing rigours of the economic climate, theatre-goers have acted with their feet and wallets."

The figures relate to the theatres represented in membership of the Society of London Theatre, which include all the commercial West End houses.

However, the Guardian's theatre critic, Michael Billington, sounded a warning about the figures, saying: "Dark weeks can be a convenient alibi for a slight drop in attendances.

"I hope we're not heading for a situation like Broadway, where revenues increase because of ever higher ticket prices while attendances slowly decline."

He added that the healthy state of London theatre might not be replicated elsewhere. "I was at the New Vic in Newcastle-under-Lyme last night where they told me they'd had a 10% rise in attendance," he told the BBC.

"Other theatres have seen a marked drop in box-office. It's in the regions, I suspect, that the recession is starting to bite."

Price comparison

Using the Solt figures, theatre website Whatsonstage.com illustrated how the rise in ticket prices between 1986 and 2011 compared to audience figures.

While attendances rose 26%, over the same time period box office takings rose by 347% - meaning the average ticket price in 2011 was £37.97 versus £10.95 in 1986.

Speaking to Whatsonstage.com, Rubinstein attributed rising costs to a variety of factors including: increased VAT receipts; costlier, more high-tech productions; and rising venue and ticketing technology expenses, as well as inflation.

"The profits in the average producer's pocket have not been getting fatter," he said.

Whatsonstage editor Terri Paddock told the BBC: "It is an expensive business, but the industry is aware that prices can't just rise inexorably. There is point at which the market will bear no more and we are all going to have to be looking at those issues over the next few years."

She added that the high number of "dark" weeks in 2011 did not reflect periods of inactivity.

At the Palace Theatre, where Whatsonstage.com is based, there is currently a changeover period between the Priscilla musical and Singin' In the Rain - which opens on 4 February.

"Those big shows take a long time to set up," she said. "There have been crew members and technicians getting the old show out and putting the new show in. It's a very large undertaking."

Adam Kenwright, is the managing director of aka - the marketing agency behind plays and shows such as War Horse, Shrek, Matilda the Musical and Jerusalem.

"The West End is a real success story for the UK," he said.

"These figures are a testament to the strength, quality and talent of London theatre and show that even in difficult financial times, millions of people are prepared to spend their hard-earned money on world-class entertainment."

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