London theatre defies Olympic downturn with record box office in 2012

Shaftesbury Avenue in London's West End. Photo: Alex Brenner
Shaftesbury Avenue in London's West End. Photo: Alex Brenner
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London theatre resisted an Olympic downturn in 2012, recording its ninth successive year of record box office returns.

The figures, released this week by the Society of London Theatre, revealed that Theatreland enjoyed gross sales of £529.8 million - up 0.27% on 2011. Meanwhile, attendances were 13,992,773 - also up (0.56%) on 2011, but still below levels in 2010 and 2009.

The results revealed that both box office and audiences were down during the Olympic period. The third quarter of the year, which included London 2012, saw attendances fall 6% and box office down 10% on the same period in 2011, with the difference between the two figures indicating that discounting was more prevalent than usual. These lower figures were counteracted by a very strong first half of 2012.

Plays were particularly successful, with audiences up 9% on 2011, which itself was up on the previous year. Plays now account for 29.4% of overall attendances and 23.6% of box office. Musical attendances were down 3% and revenue down 2%.

SOLT president Mark Rubinstein told The Stage he was "delighted" with the results. He said: "I think every member of SOLT was concerned, nervous about the impact the Olympic and Paralympic Games was going to have. And it's not just the Olympics - if you look at what is happening in retail and high street names falling. The Olympics did take a bite out the business in the summer but we had a very strong start to the year, a very good autumn and the advances [advance box office] are up - at the end of last year it reached a record breaking high.

"None of us thought we would be able to end the year saying we were up," he added. "The increase is less than inflation, the increase is less than the negotiated increase in terms for all of our trade union contracts, but if anyone had told us a year ago that we would end the year up, we would have thought they were wearing rose-tinted spectacles."

Meanwhile, he pointed to the success of Kids Week during the summer period. The initiative, which offers discounted tickets to children, sold 129,000 tickets - its most ever.

Average ticket yield was down by 11p over the year - from £37.97 in 2011 to £37.86. This marks the first time since records began in 1986 that the average ticket price paid has fallen from one year to the next.

The level of VAT paid to the Treasury was its highest ever - at £88.3 million.

The results cover the SOLT membership, which includes the commercial West End and major subsidised theatre, such as the National and Royal Opera House, in central London. In all, the results cover 52 major commercial and grant-aided theatres in central London.

However, Rubinstein warned of the effect that funding cuts were having on theatres outside London and the knock on effect that it could have on the West End in future years.

He said: "These figures are for London. Many people start elsewhere and learn their trade outside London. The funding cuts to regional theatres can only have a negative impact in the long term. That can only be detrimental - and when you look at the way London theatre drives tourism, you look at what it does in terms of the health and wellbeing of the nation, beyond economic impact, the short-sightedness of those relatively small cuts are painful and must be mistaken.

"We are successful because there are great shows and great talent. Those people and those shows, whether they are fed directly or we're talking about the talent that has grown up over the years, they are there [in London] in a large part because of regional subsidised houses."