The annual Society of London Theatre box office figures are generally about as predictable as a Kazakhstani election result. Just as the country’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev will always romp home with 95%-plus share of the vote in the world’s largest landlocked country, so SOLT will always declare that West End box office takings are – yes – up on the previous year.
It hasn’t always been the case, but the last year to be fractionally down on its predecessor was 2003. The gains since then have been pretty consistent. The headline figures for 2018 are exactly as expected. There was one new record for attendance, which hit 15.5 million and another for gross revenue – a whopping £765.8 million.
Musicals had a really great year – with audiences up 8.2% and revenues up 16% – plays did not, with audiences down 6.5% and revenues falling 5.2%. Though to be fair, plays suffered from a record 2017 and a drop off was inevitable. Not least because some theatres that had hosted plays previously, put on musicals in 2018. For example the Shaftesbury Apollo became the home of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.
What leapt out of the figures was that the rise in musical revenues was double the rise in musical attendance. More subtly, play attendance in 2018 dropped by almost what it had gained in the previous year (down 6.5% after a 7% rise), but the gross dropped by less than a third (down 5.2% after a 16% rise).
This tells us one, obvious thing: Theatreland is taking more money, and doing so out of proportion with the amount of new bums it’s getting on seats. The release did not give an explanation for this (the average ticket price is £49.25, a couple of quid up on 2017), but it’s not hard to point at the massive rise in top-end West End ticket prices identified by The Stage in its 2018 survey, wherein the top tickets were found to be 19% more expensive than in the previous year.
Trying to discern more from the SOLT figures is tricky because they’re so oblique, with no data on specific shows. There is an allusion to Hamilton’s success in the statement accompanying the figures, but we don’t know what the actual overall effect of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pricey blockbuster is on the numbers.
While Broadway airs all of its dirty financial laundry, we’re altogether coyer – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has probably massively distorted play earnings, but we’ll never get a full breakdown to prove it.
Whatever their impact, these are great shows that have largely gone uncriticised for the amounts they’re charging. Indeed, the evidence is there that audiences are happy to pay ever increasing amounts to get in.
But, that doesn’t alter the fundamental point that it’s difficult to see how price increases being double that of audiences increases is a good thing. Many people are prepared to pay more for a decent seat in the stalls. But can this upward trajectory last forever?
In accompanying comments to the 2017 figures, SOLT president Kenny Wax sounded a note of alarm about 2018 profits. He was wrong to worry, it seems. But in his comments for the 2018 figures, he sounds an even more urgent note of alarm, citing dark theatres, closing shows and Brexit as potential risks.
Maybe he’ll be right, maybe not, but with top West End ticket prices continuing to soar, it’s difficult not to conclude that what goes up, will at some point have to come down.