Exclusive: West End starts 2012 with 13% box office leap

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London theatres have posted strong results for the first quarter of 2012, with attendances up by 11% on the same period last year, driven by an especially strong performance by plays.

Overall, box office was up 13% on the first quarter of 2011. While the first three months of 2011 were weak (6% down on 2010), this year's Q1 was also up on average levels. Plays were significantly up, with audiences and revenue increasing by 24% and 26% respectively on the first three months of 2011. The increases were due largely to the fact that there were fewer dark weeks during the period than in previous years, with 376 more performances than in the first quarter of 2011.

The results are compiled by the Society of London Theatre. SOLT president Mark Rubinstein told The Stage the early box office performance for 2012 had been better than expected.

"There are reasons why that first quarter was up against the previous year," he said. "This time last year the first quarter was very poor – it was down – but this year we're up against last year and up against the three-year average as well. Looking at the first quarter, we've had some great shows – Matilda, Sweeney Todd and One Man, Two Guvnors continued to be very strong."

Rubinstein said box office has continued to perform well after the first three months of 2012, despite a small dip during the heat wave in May. He added that the West End had so far benefited from the poor summer.

"We love the rain, we love the cool weather," he added. "I know anecdotally from talking to people that when the heat first hit, that was a time when people weren't going out and buying theatre tickets."

Advance box office in the first quarter of 2012 was 7% down at the end of the quarter and Rubinstein said it was a pattern he expected to continue throughout the Olympic period when shows would depend more on last minute sales.

"We expect this summer to see more bookings on the day and in the week, than in advance, because we're seeing more of a tourist, transient audience, rather than a home audience – especially during the Olympics and Paralympics," he explained.

"It's a different audience, it's a different world from previous summers and we can't predict the box office in the same way that we can in a normal summer. The interesting thing though is that Kids Week [a promotion offering discounted tickets during August] went on sale last week and had an enormous first day. The general pattern I expect is that the big brand shows will do well out of the Olympic visiting audience, but that we can continue to reach out to a home and family audience with those promotions. I don't think this summer is going to be easy, but it's not going to be a bloodbath."