How the National Escaped the Great West End Exodus

Posted by on Oct 25, 2012 in Blog | No Comments

Originally published in The Stage October 2012

For more than a year before the Olympics hit, West End producers and theatre owners were expressing concern about how the West End would manage. There was talk of marketing campaigns to boost sales and remind visitors to the UK of  ‘The Greatest Show on Earth, there was talk of producers closing shows over the Olympic weeks, Lloyd Webber predicted a blood bath and everyone braced themselves for the worst. In the end it wasn’t ‘as bad’ as everyone predicted but it wasn’t a triumph for the industry either.  In the end most theatres remained open, and a modest poster campaign seemed to encourage tourists into the West End. Musicals performed well whilst straight plays suffered.

What went wrong? Why did one of Britain’s major success stories – one of its most robust industries prove so vulnerable?  There was some blame placed on the transport message warning Londoners to stay at home, and when Londoners saw that central London seemed safe to get to audience figures seemed to rise. It is striking however that one of the biggest central London theatres saw no drop in audience figures – the National Theatre, with over 2000 tickets to sell each night reported that ticket sales remained unaffected by Olympic fever. So how could one central London theatre do so well when so many others suffered?

The big difference of course it that the National Theatre has always nurtured a very mixed audience, especially with Hytner and Starr at the helm, and with the continuing success of the Travelex seasons. The National of course has a duty to ensure it uses its public funding to ensure that the building and the work is accessible to as big a demographic as possible, and it is an obligation that of course does not extend to the West End. But encouraging a broad demographic is also good basic business, and it is something West End producers have ignored for many years now. Over the past decade the price of tickets for the West End have risen to the point that it is almost impossible for any Londoner on an average wage to see the West End as anything more than an occasional luxury, and long before the Olympics arrived SOLT was starting to report an increase in revenue from ticket sales at the same time as announcing a drop in actual tickets sold. West End producers were charging less people more money to see productions.

Whenever another milestone is reached in the ever-increasing price of tickets producers will speak out about the rising costs of mounting a production, of the increasing risks and the struggle for investment. Of course if people are willing to pay top price it makes sense to charge top price. The trouble with this is that it excludes a growing number of theatregoers, meaning in the end West End productions make a huge percentage of their money from the tourist industry – the rich American over in London to take in as much culture as they can. There is still nothing wrong with this – if that’s the market for top price theatre then so be it. Until the rich Americans looking for cultural breaks stop coming of course, because, for example a massive world-sporting event is taking place. This summer the West End suffered because the audience it had spent so many years playing to vanished almost over night. The National Theatre, on the other hand, saw no drop in ticket sales because the National Theatre isn’t relying on one income stream, on one core audience.

It’s not just the high-ticket prices that have damaged the homegrown market. There is little in the way of education and engagement initiatives at the core of west end productions. Whilst companies such as The Mousetrap Foundation continue to do strong work, this kind of thinking, this way of opening up West End productions to a new audience is rarely core to any producers thinking.

The answer to the West Ends downturn may be just round the corner. The Michael Grandage Company caused a stir when it announced its first season earlier this year. A season of five plays, with some dynamic casting, tickets that are affordable to all, and an education / engagement remit at its core with MG Futures. By creating a season of work, and by cross marketing them the Michael Grandage Company has created a buzz (and a rumored advance) most West End producers could only dream of this year.

If the first season of the Michael Grandage Company succeeds  (and the early signs suggest it will) it will prove there is a way of producing and selling productions in the West End that will ensure a broader more robust audience for generations to come.