Significant dark periods and major renovations meant West End theatre saw a dip in attendances in 2019, with musicals suffering a rare drop in audiences.
Takings across the West End were up overall, the Society of London Theatre confirmed, with gross revenue increasing for the 16th year running to £799 million. This was boosted by another year of rising ticket prices, with the average price paid now exceeding £50.
Extensive refurbishments of Theatre Royal Drury Lane – which was closed for the majority of 2019 and remains under construction until later this year – and the newly renamed Sondheim Theatre, home to Les Misérables, contributed to a year in which total attendance fell by 1.4% from 15.5 million in 2018 to 15.3 million.
Fellow musical house the Dominion Theatre was also dark for periods in 2019, which is reflected in the news that the number of people going to musicals also fell slightly, by 1.8% to 9.3 million. The London Palladium had 35 weeks where theatre productions were not programmed.
The genre had been riding high on a record year in 2018, with blockbuster shows such as Hamilton boosting audiences and generating a 15% rise in box office takings for musicals.
This year’s data still saw an increase in revenue for musicals, albeit a smaller one, with takings up by 3.7% to £522.7 million.
Announcing the most recent year of box office figures for London’s commercial West End and major subsidised venues, SOLT said the fact that four of Theatreland’s large musical houses experienced lengthy dark periods had led to the drop in attendance.
The closures meant there were a total of 371 dark weeks in 2019, compared to 207 the previous year.
Despite the overall dint in attendance, SOLT president Kenny Wax praised the “buoyancy” of West End theatre, as the figures showed that with dark venues discounted from the data, 80.7% of available seats were filled in 2019, a record number, and up from 77.5% the previous year.
“Our major theatreowners and producers continue to present world-class work, while investing in their historic venues to give audiences the best possible experience.
“Audiences remain hungry for a quality live experience, evidenced by the unprecedented percentage of seats filled in 2019,” Wax said.
He went on to praise the industry’s commitment to “offering a wide range of affordable tickets”, claiming that more than five million tickets were available in the commercial West End at £40 or less in 2019 and just 1.1% were sold at £150 and above.
SOLT’s figures also showed the average price paid increased again in 2019, rising by 5.8% to £52.17.
The Stage’s own research into West End tickets saw top-end tickets decrease in price for the first time in seven years in 2019. It also recorded an increase of 13% for the cheapest tickets.
Plays experienced an increase in both attendance and revenue in 2019, reversing 2018’s 5.2% fall in sales with a healthy 7.5% increase, bringing revenue to just under £180 million.
Elsewhere, opera, dance, non-theatre performance and entertainment, which are grouped into one category, experienced an 8.4% decline in audiences, but a 2% growth in revenue – to £96.5 million.
Last year, SOLT released its box-office data in conjunction with UK Theatre, which revealed the sales and attendance for theatres outside London.
The UK Theatre data for 2019 will be published separately, SOLT confirmed.
SOLT: gross box office revenue
2019: 799 million
2018: £766 million
2017: £705 million
2016: £645 million
2015: £634 million
2014: £624 million
2019: 15.3 million
2018: 15.5 million
2017: 15 million
2016: 14.3 million
2015: 14.7 million
2014: 14.7 million
2019 in numbers
£799 million: gross box office revenue
15.3 million: total attendances
18,364: total number of performances
834: average attendance per performance
80.7%: percentage of available seats filled
£52.17: average price paid