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As Variety reported last week, “London box office figures for individual shows remain unpublished, but those seeking a barometer of the current state of the West End need look no further than Absent Friends and Hay Fever.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.”