Official: London theatre defies recession

London Theatreland’s overall box office takings have broken the £500 million mark for the first time ever, marking a seventh record year in a row and defying fears that the industry would be hit by the recession.

The Society of London Theatre has announced that the total receipts for 2009 were £504,765,690. This was 4.4% (£21 million) up on 2008 – an even more notable achievement bearing in mind the accounting period for 2008 was spread over 53 weeks, compared to 52 weeks in 2009. Like for like, 2009 was 7.6% up. In terms of attendances, the West End’s total was 14,257,922, which was 2.6% (365,462) up on 2008. Like for like, that represented a 5.5% increase.

While in previous years it has been musicals that have driven the increases in box office takings, in 2009 the rise was almost entirely accounted for by the performance of drama at the box office. Led by the success of shows such as War Horse, Waiting for Godot and Calendar Girls, plays were 26% up on 2008 levels, while opera, dance and entertainments were up 7%. Musicals, meanwhile, were 2% down over the year.

SOLT president and Nimax Theatres chief executive Nica Burns, who early in the year had predicted as much as a 10% drop in revenues, said she was happy to “eat her words”.

She added: “I had honestly not expected that we would carry on the extraordinary build that we’ve had over the last seven years. Who would, given the depth of the recession? So I’m ecstatic that we’ve managed to surpass last year’s record-breaking year. Doubly so in these times. It is really just because the artistic community in the UK strives so hard for excellence constantly and we’ve had the most extraordinary creative period.”

However, she warned that London theatres’ success could only continue if government support for subsidised theatres was maintained.

“We have the ability to keep it up, but we need to keep up the resources at the development stage. I would say to whatever government we go on to have – while we understand that cuts are necessary for the nation’s budget, theatre has proven itself that for every pound invested in it, it gives three pounds back.

“So, don’t cut your nose off to spite your face. Keep supporting our talent, which will go on to earn a lot of money for UK plc. We pay our way and more, but we do need support at the development end, so it’s essential that the subsidised sector are given the resources they need.”

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The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London. Photo: Noel Foster