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Mark Shenton: Could the West End bubble burst?

A scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the West End
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Earlier this week, the Society of London Theatre announced that attendance at its member theatres has exceeded 15 million for the first time ever –  a 5.35% increase on last year, with revenues also exceeding £700 million for the first time, too, which marked an incredible 9.3% rise on 2016.

Of course, the fact that the rise in income is four percentage points above the rise in attendance does mean that tickets are being sold at ever-increasing prices – top-price tickets for Hamilton recently surged to £250, a new West End high. That is only a partial picture, though: as a spokesperson for Hamilton pointed out to The Stage, the show has 240 tickets at £37.50 or less for each performance, including the £10 Daily Lottery tickets.

And yet, according to SOLT, the average ticket price paid across last year was £46.71 – a substantial increase on the £45 it was the year before. Also up (and setting another new record) was the total percentage of capacity of available seats filled: 77.5% this year, against last year’s 76.7% of available seats filled.

So more and more people are going to the theatre at ever higher prices – and with 23% of seats still unfilled, there’s capacity for further growth and new records to be broken, too.

But could this bubble eventually burst?

Current SOLT president Kenny Wax has already sounded a warning bell, saying: “It is heartening to have seen growth in audiences for both plays and musicals. However, the year is a tale of two halves with the industry operating in a tougher climate in the final two quarters.”

Of course the success of the West End is partly product-driven and success breeds success. As available theatres are in ever-dwindling supply, with shows lined up back-to-back to book them, only the most viable (in the sense of being able to attract audiences) will be offered space. I met a producer the other day who spoke of his problems finding a theatre for his show. He is now wondering whether to go outside the established network and join the next iteration of the temporary pop-up tent theatre that was established at King’s Cross and may next be sited at White City.

Last year’s sell-outs included the ongoing success of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (opening imminently on Broadway), the late arrival of Hamilton (which will no doubt inflate next year’s figures for income and attendance once it has played an entire year), the Royal Court’s production of The Ferryman and its current transfer to the Gielgud, and a trilogy of big hits at the National in Angels in America (likewise now on Broadway, where it opens officially on March 25) Network and Follies. The NT’s last annual report for 2016/17 recorded capacity of 93%, its best attendances for a decade. There were also the summer success of Bat Out of Hell at the London Coliseum, which will no doubt bolster 2018 figures when it returns for an open-ended run at the Dominion.

All these shows – and more – reveal British theatre talent firing on all cylinders. But future success also depends on the ongoing vitality of Britain’s regional and subsidised theatre network to provide the feeder route for the talent that contribute to so many of these shows. Jeopardise that, as current funding constraints are doing, and the supply chain of hit shows could dry up.

But there’s also the even more urgent matter of audience development. With an average ticket price of £46.71, the West End is in danger of pricing out its audiences of the future: the people whose theatre habit needs nurturing young. Various schemes do enable students to get affordable tickets, such as those promoted via Mousetrap Theatre Projects (selling West End tickets to those in state education between 15 and 18 for £5 and £10 for those 19-23 in full-time drama or performing arts training), or the NT’s free Entry Pass membership scheme, which enables those aged 16-25 to buy £7.50 tickets to all NT productions.

Mark Shenton: The West End is booming, but will it price out future patrons?

Another consideration is that everything is built on a presumption of ongoing economic and political stability – hardly a certainty as we approach a (far from finalised) Brexit deal.

That said, the West End has literally never had it so good. I remember a time not so very long ago when multiple West End theatres would go dark for long stretches – as they still do on Broadway – between attractions, but that never happens in London anymore. But that prosperity isn’t necessarily being shared by all the people who contribute to generating it. West End wages have stagnated. Current West End minimums for an eight-show week in the West End range from £556 to £679 per week, depending on the capacity of the theatre, with an uplift to £568-£694 from next month.

A year ago, the FT reported in a piece about the current state of the UK economy: “Between 2007 and 2015, the UK was the only big advanced economy in which wages contracted while the economy expanded. In most other countries, including France and Germany, both the economy and wages have grown.”

And the same is true in the theatre. As ever, it’s hard to make a living in the theatre – though you can make a killing. The theatrical economy is definitely growing, but the West End could find itself simultaneously squeezed in two directions: by audiences resisting high prices, and performers demanding higher wages.

Read Mark Shenton on The Stage every Wednesday and Friday