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Crisis time in the West End?

There’s a lot of talk about the ever-approaching spectre of the Olympics, and whether or not audiences will actually materialise for the theatre as well as the sports events that will saturate TV coverage and the entire city. Not all of us, after all, are sports fans.

When Whatsonstage.com recently polled its users, it discovered that nearly 70% said they would attend as much or more than usual during the Games, and two-thirds of respondents predicted the Olympics would help increase London theatre attendance. But while that’s an interesting take amongst a group of people who already demonstrate their commitment to the theatre by their use of the site, I wonder how widely that will translate beyond it.

But never mind the Olympics — there’s a more immediate crisis engulfing the West End. Plenty of shows are struggling already. A friend reported going to The Wizard of Oz last week and told me that he’s never seen the London Palladium more empty. And Baz Bamigboye recently reported that “sadly, the Palladium box office has plummeted to red-for-danger levels” since Danielle Hope and Michael Crawford left the show last month.

You only need to look at the proliferation of discount offers elsewhere to see that shows are not necessarily selling as well as they should. In the last few days, my inbox has had offers for £39.50 for top price tickets to Ghost and Shrek, amongst others.

Of course all of that is anecdotal, and we’d only know for sure if the West End followed the Broadway practice of releasing weekly box office takings — and as much as people are naturally curious and nosey about such matters, I have to say that I can never understand why private businesses, that are not publicly trading on the stock exchange, would want to share such commercially sensitive information, or should have to purely to satisfy that curiosity. Just because they do it in New York doesn’t mean they should do it here.

As Variety reported last week, “London box office figures for individual shows remain unpublished, but those seeking a barometer of the current state of the West End need look no further than Absent Friends and Hay Fever. Both classic British comedies opened last month within two weeks of each other in midsize houses to largely ecstatic reviews. The surprise is that, since opening, both shows have continued to offer major discounts and ticketing deals, suggesting box office has not been as robust as was hoped.” Variety quotes Hay Fever lead producer Matthew Byam Shaw saying, “After those reviews, you would have expected the box office to roar. But we didn’t get the lift we’d hoped for.”

Not that it’s doing badly — Variety also says he’s “in a confident mood after a major marketing spend and what he reports is a pickup in sales.” But part of the problem is a shift in advance booking patterns: “Audiences for plays used to book way in advance. Those audiences are still coming, but their decision to buy is being made much later.”

No wonder the same producer told me at the opening night last week of Sweeney Todd that he is also a lead producer on that the West End was going to need all the critical support it could get in the coming months. It’s not our job, of course, to fill seats — it’s the producers’ jobs to provide the shows that will make people want to go — though our enthusiasm, or not, may help them make that decision.

But sometimes, too, you need to take a long-term view. Bill Kenwright, speaking last month after the Whatsonstage.com awards, was asked in a filmed interview for his take on the current state of the West End, and replied by saying, “It’s February, so it’s good; come back in May and I’ll tell you it’s shit, then in June it gets a bit better. The West End is cyclical; there’s 52 weeks in the year, there are great times and there are not so great times. But at the moment we’ve got monster hits like Matilda and War Horse, and they’ll lift the entire West End. Look, I’ve been doing it now for 40 years and I know the highs and lows — you can do anything with figures, but the West End will always be there, as long as two people or even one person can get on stage and say the spoken word and do it well, it will always be there.”

10 Comments

Regarding play goers booking later, the theatres themselves have trained us into this behaviour by habitually offering substantial discounts for those who wait. If more West End theatres adopted the Southwark Playhouse model of offering early bird discounts, perhaps we'd switch back to booking in advance. I love going to the theatre, but it's extremely rare that I want to see something enough to not wait for a discounted ticket, and so far the number of times I've been disappointed can be counted on one hand.

A recent study of 'Social Media in Theatre Marketing' by Sven Ruggenberg - which I know Mark has seen and been involved in - highlights all of the key issues facing theatres and theatre producers in the UK and touched on in Mark Shenton's piece.

A real understanding the theatre, a detailed, careful analysis of the problems and a sound understanding of what is happening in the entertainment market place coupled along with a proper business-led approach to resolving them problems is where a start should be made.

The pricing model used by so many producers and production companies is quite hopeless and does nothing to create let alone sustain a viable business model add to this the total secrecy by SOLT as to what is happening each week at the theatre box offices does nothing to help allay customer and investor fears.

The other question to ask is why more use is not made in the UK of 'stage to screen' technology and cinemas in bringing some of the terrific shows produced regionally to wider audiences. Too often great, out of West End productions are feted in the press, finish their regional run and never see the light of day on a tour.

The world is changing and theatregoers are finding it hard and expensive to justify £300 + for a familyvisit to see a show in the West End. All the clever minds and technology are out there waiting to be used. It's up to producers to move into the 21st century with regards to delivering theatre entertainment in a 21st century way using ALL the technologies available.


Hayfever and Absent Friends were typically over priced and I would question whether both shows are truly discounted. I am beginning to get the impression that most theatres are working to a business model whereby they will sell as many tickets as possible at a premium price before offering 'discounts' the same or only a little less than was standard price until recently. I would suggest it is unsustainable as many people will look up a show, see the prices and then leave it rather than wait for the discount.

Sod the families of four, what about the people who just like to go to the theatre? Don't they deserve a break too? If I went into a coffee shop and bought a coffee every day for ten days, I'd get a free one on the eleventh. Where are all those loyalty deals in the West End? It really is time theatre operators woke up, and started to work together - perhaps through SOLT - and realised that much though I love theatre, it isn't the only possible way I could spend my evenings, and more importantly, my hard earned cash.

Spot on Bill Badger. The theatres' business models are starting at the wrong end. They should be securing the 'run' by filling the seats from the 'bottom price levels' (Upper Circle, back of the Dress, back of the stalls) first.

Atthe same time ensure all the 'Groups' with whom they should be doing business are involved, create a proper, loyalty-based subscription system and then, only then, bring into play a focused and specific strategy for the higher-priced seats and 'deals on the day' for the 20% of theatregoers who still buy on the day.

All the while building a carefully executed social-network-based marketing campaign allied to 'meet the cast'; 'meet the creatives'; 'meet the critics' style ancillary tie-in events.

It's not rocket science.

West End ticket pricing is mind-boggingly incredible, taking into account all the discount ticket booths around the Square,premium rates,even Solt's outlet where prices are not all HALF-PRICE as they used to be.My theory is that shows are priced high so that in the event of heavy reductions the venue would still be profitable.I got my top-price ticket for "Sweeney Todd" from the booth but not for half house price last Friday, but am glad I did get at leastb a £25 discount, so if you can It's worth waiting to nearer the day to book.Programme cost £3.50, but same programme for "Ladykillers" was £4. Why aren't they priced on cover?

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"When Whatsonstage.com recently polled its users, it discovered that nearly 70% said they would attend as much or more than usual during the Games" - not 70% of whatsonstage's users, 70% of respondents - a self-selecting sample, generally known in statistics as being all but useless as regards indicative weight.

Ian - I agree the stats are useless - as was the survey itself. A limited choice of questions and an even more limited range of pre chosen options.

Ecstatic reviews for 'Hay Fever'? Really? Sounds like the author of the article in 'Variety' took the producer's word for it without checking the facts. As others have already pointed out, ticket prices for 'Hay Fever' were ridiculously high, and the producers may not have helped themselves by offering insultingly small discounts (£6 off anybody?) before the show opened. By the time more generous discounts were offered we had certainly lost interest and booked other things. And what about the risks that audiences take buying in advance? We have started to notice some agencies selling, on top of their already exorbitant fees, cancellation insurance for tickets in case you can't attend the show. Has it occurred to producers to offer a no-quibble refund on tickets bought in advance as a way of encouraging audiences to pre-book? Works pretty well for M&S.

We're quite happy not to be 'nosy' about box office takings, as long as producers don't expect us to believe them when they claim to be having a hard time. It's called accountability.

The actual phenomenon is trans-Atlantic, along with Broadway producers recently also faced with consumers who buy seat tickets closer and closer to the actual performance date. The excitement is likely owing to a number of aspects, including the instant easy Internet sales and also the increasing profile of reduced tickets, for which a few buyers might be ready.

Melanie,
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