Several years of year-on-year record-breaking business in the West End have defied the recessionary trend elsewhere and made the theatre feel not only immune to the prevailing economic winds but indeed has been often cited as providing a safe haven of relief for those affected by them. Where do you go when something extreme is predicted? A storm shelter, barricaded against the elements but with a community around you. But some people hunker down at home and hope to ride it out alone. And now it looks like the theatre may be seeing more of their audiences adopting the latter strategy.
Figures released by SOLT yesterday for the first quarter of this year reveal a sudden downturn in attendances and box office revenue at West End theatres over the same period the previous year: down a dramatic 10% in attendances, though that only translates into a 6% drop in revenue earned. That suggests, of course, that the 90% of tickets sold against last year’s figures are, at least, being sold at higher prices to offset some of the losses in bums on seats.
There could, of course, be many factors at play that have led to this result, and it’s impossible to draw conclusions based on one quarter only, but anecdotally I hear that the West End is deeply worried. Everyone I talk to speaks of empty houses and struggling shows.
Part of it is no doubt product-related; some new shows are simply failing to capture the attention of the public, like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg that closes at the Gielgud this weekend. No doubt the critics will partly be held to blame; it got mostly negative reviews. But even Betty Blue Eyes, which by contrast opened to mostly rave reviews in April, has failed so far to catch on, with bulletin boards reporting that the upper circle and balcony levels are regularly shut. And where older shows are starting to lose their box office luster, could it simply be that they are finally reaching the end of their life cycle? People have seen them already, and some of them have been clogging up prime West End houses for too long now.
But could part of the problem with the West End’s fall in attendance be that price resistance is finally starting to show? Thanks to the dramatic rise in premium pricing that have seen tickets now on sale through box offices — not the touts — for £85 and more, a perception is being created that the West End is for rich folk only. Of course that’s not the reality and there are lots of cheaper tickets available; but when, as I reported here just last week, the producers of the forthcoming Ghost have marked up all the best seat locations identified by Theatremonkey as premium seats, the general public is specifically being excluded from getting them unless they pay top dollar.
There are, without doubt, cheaper ways to get entertained; I don’t know of better ways myself, of course, but then I would say that — I have a vested interest in ensuring the continuing vitality of the theatre. But now that audiences are not so much ticket buyers as small-time investors, like all investors you want to see a return on your capital; and ever-increasing prices mean that audiences need rewarding with an experience that is equal to the time and money they have put into it.
Audiences, again like investors, have duly become risk-averse; they need to know that their money will be well spent. No one, of course, can guarantee that everyone will have a good time; but instead of rewarding audiences for their loyalty, at least, producers and theatreowners are treating them as commodities to be drained of every last penny, from those premium ticket prices to iniquitous booking fees. In short, if there’s a way to charge the customer for something, you charge them. No doubt there’ll soon be a charge for visiting the toilet. As Bette Midler once remarked about being asked for a fee to pee in Paris, “but I did it all myself!” Actually, there is already a charge for this; lots of theatres now charge unavoidable restoration fees.