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Insight: When are theatres busiest?

Mark Rylance, Iestyn Davies, Sam Crance and Melody Grove in Farinelli and the King, which appeared to have sold 99.9% of tickets sold across the month of August. Photo: Simon Annand
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How do you tell how well a West End show is selling? Other than the rare juggernauts, West End producers are notoriously tight-lipped about ticket sales – leaving an information void that is filled with hearsay, gossip and speculation.

To counter this, in 2014, we began taking a weekly snapshot of ticket availability at 10 West End theatres. While not totally representative – there are 51 venues in the West End – this does allow us to see some of the trends affecting both plays and musicals in London’s commercial theatre. This year marks our first full year of data.

The week that the West End performed best in our count came as we undertook our first snapshot of the year on January 2, thanks to the ever-popular Christmas period. All the shows but one – Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap – had less than 15% of tickets remaining unsold on this day, with Les Miserables and The Book of Mormon both selling out.

At the other end of the scale, April ushered in both the worst-selling month and the least popular day of the year of those we counted. On average, two in every five tickets remained unsold at the time of counting on April 21, a figure indicative of the fact that April is traditionally one of the weaker months for West End ticket sales.

On that day, both The Mousetrap and Memphis had more than half their tickets still on sale (65% and 51% respectively), while musicals Miss Saigon and Jersey Boys both had more than 40% of their tickets remaining.

This particular count fell on a Tuesday, which, when looking across the whole year, was found to be the least popular day to visit the theatre.

On average, Tuesday evenings performed worse than any other day of the week, followed by Wednesdays. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fridays outperformed all other weekdays in terms of ticket sales, consistently being the most popular night to attend the theatre. Both the best count of the year (Friday, January 2) and the worst (Tuesday, April 21) tally with this conclusion.

Because different shows were swapped in and out of our count throughout the year to get as broad a view of the West End as possible, it is difficult to compare the records of individual productions directly – especially taking into account the number of shows, particularly plays, that opened and closed this year.

In total, tickets for 36 West End shows were counted during 2015, with between two and four changing each month in order to rejuvenate the stock. This did, however, enable us to return to some long-running productions in order to chart their progress at different times of the year.

Among the shows we analysed most frequently was The Mousetrap, which, despite being included in eight out of the 11 months monitored so far, consistently sold the lowest proportion of tickets of all the shows in any given month.

At the other end of the scale, fellow long-runners Mamma Mia! and Billy Elliot performed consistently strongly across the months they were included, peaking in line with the strong summer sales. Mamma Mia!, running at the Novello Theatre, recorded average unsold tickets of 3% during August, while Billy Elliot at the Victoria Palace averaged 11% of tickets unsold during the same month.


Best and worst

  • Best performing day of the week: Friday.
  • Worst performing day of the week: Tuesday.
  • Most popular date counted in 2015: Friday, January 2.
  • Least popular date counted in 2015: Tuesday, April 21.
  • Total number of shows counted: 36.
  • Best performing month: August/October.
  • Worst performing month: April.

London’s popularity as a tourist destination during the summer, the school summer holidays in July and August and the Kids Week ticketing initiative, combined to result in a boost in sales across the West End, something that was particularly marked in family-friendly and big-name shows.

National Theatre export War Horse’s results leapt from an average of 31% of tickets available in May to 2% in August, with Mamma Mia! also leading the field in August, with an average of 97% of its available seats seemingly sold out shortly before performances.

The summer season’s trade also evened out sales over different days of the week, with much less disparity between the most popular days at the end of the week, and those earlier on in the week that are known for selling fewer tickets.

This is in line with previous years, during which June and July have seen a steady climb towards a peak in August. Sales then usually drop in September before climbing again from October, as the year comes to a close and Christmas draws closer.

The strong August sales this year – which averaged at just 15% of tickets remaining unsold across the West End – was therefore matched by a similarly strong month in October. Despite encompassing school half-term weeks, the count was also undoubtedly boosted by the impressive Farinelli and the King, which appeared to have sold, on average, 99.9% of tickets across the month.

The Mark Rylance-led play, which ran at the Duke of York’s Theatre following success at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, is among a number of near sold-out plays we have monitored in 2015.

Others include the Young Vic transfer A View from the Bridge, which ran at Wyndham’s Theatre and featured an Olivier award-winning performance from Mark Strong; American Buffalo, also at Wyndham’s and starring Damien Lewis and John Goodman; and Bradley Cooper’s star performance in The Elephant Man at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

In the musicals category, only The Book of Mormon came close to this kind of success. However, it mustn’t be ignored that venues staging musicals are on average considerably larger than playhouses.

It is also worth noting that our data for December is incomplete at the time of publication – but the month is expected to have extremely high sales due to the busy Christmas period, which usually outpeaks the summer.

In fact, our snapshots are largely in line with the historical average of trends in West End sales between 2010 and 2012, indicating that – while still only a snapshot – our West End Box Office data has considerable value.

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Methodology

We monitor the shows on a different day week-on-week, and count unsold tickets for the evening performance on the same day. The selection of shows changes each month, but is never entirely different. Our analysis does not take into account tickets sold between our count and the evening performance or through third-party vendors – which is why we place emphasis on the number of tickets that remain unsold. However, we do undertake the counting at a time when most third-party tickets have been returned to the theatre.


Additional reporting by David Hutchison

December’s West End Box Office will appear in the January 7 issue of The Stage

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