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Is there a future for West End Theatre?

If the monkey knew that, it would sell the information and retire. Still, it is the question most regularly asked right now, so it is going to take a wild stab in the dark. Based on jungle instinct and over 20 years with bananas at stake, here it goes...

To know where we are going, it feels it best to find out where we are now, so it started off with a quick saunter through that day’s booking charts for various shows. It took a quick look a couple of weeks ahead (school holiday period) and a month or so ahead of that.

Bearing in mind that some shows “hold off” unsold seats and dribble them out so they look busier than they are... there wasn’t much, if any, of that going on here that the monkey could see.

It was scared stupid by what it found.
Most plays and musicals, with one or two exceptions, always had tickets at all prices - including Saturday both afternoon and evening and newly introduced Sunday performances. When it says “tickets at all prices” it means rows of them, whole sections of the auditorium closed with cheaper seats showing at the back of the circle below. That was for the coming evening (about 5 hours away), the next weeks and the month after that.

Sadly, it gives lie to the idea that people are buying at the last minute, unless they are turning up in droves on the night like they did back in the 1950s when the Palladium had doors from its massive box office straight into the auditorium.

Worse, it suggests that nobody much is booking ahead either. And why should they? Those with whom the monkey chats regularly online say that their inboxes are swamped with discount offers, massive discounts, more than they can possibly see in a month. And they are still not taking them up.

Moving on to more anecdotal evidence, its own observations and conversations with those around it at the theatre and in its friendship room online.

Masks are a massive contention.
On the one hand are those wanting everyone around them to wear one. On the other, those who see them as unnecessary and uncomfortable. Commercially, who would want to pay £100 for an evening at a show and end up with a sweaty steamed up glasses experience (and we are not talking “Magic Mike” reasons)? Or catch a virus?

Masks are in fact optional in English theatres, and wearing them varies wildly from around 10% at many musicals to 40% or so at plays. More interestingly, most are worn under the nose (thus rendering them pointless) and are discarded by the interval.

The monkey has only been asked to produce its “double jab” certificate once, too. Even though it tests itself before going to any show and knows it is negative, it wonders how many of the rest of the audience bother?

Next up, and even more noticeable is the lack of overseas tourists. That has begun to dribble back – the call of the American has become a little louder in September. For the most part, it has been wonderfully friendly Liverpool, Newcastle and Birmingham accents the monkey has heard, and welcome they all are too. Excited tales of central London hotel rooms for under £35 per night, breakfast included are the reason.

Which is the final point – who has the money to see a show? Some benefitted from working from home and furlough. A lot more – particularly those already in the theatre industry – missed out.

From the look of it, many producers did not raise ticket prices on re-opening and indeed did more offers and day seat / lottery promotions. How long that can last as inflation bites is another question.

So that’s the situation. Few advance bookings, mostly local tourists whose spending power is being eroded, a split on theatre health etiquette and discount offers back like it was 2015.

Dragging out the crystal ball and strapping on the shawl to lean over it, the monkey’s thoughts are that there are two things on which the future will depend. These are business confidence and the pandemic itself.

Business confidence.
That feeling where producers will feel able to invest in shows they have running as well as new ones. They will need to feel that box office takings will only rise and that profit margins will return to normal very quickly.

That means seeing full houses sold at full price. It means people willing to book weeks ahead. It means audiences feeling that they can afford an evening out both financially and without risk to their health or a show being cancelled at the last moment. Which brings us on to the second point.

Brutally, if another phase of the pandemic unfolds as last year, the monkey doesn’t think the theatre industry will survive in any form we would recognise today.

Even subsidised companies like the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company are firing on half-cylinders as they struggle to put work on and rebuild financially. The commercial sector has for now concentrated on getting 2020 plans to happen, with little to follow.

The public have co-operated for the most part with every restriction imposed, sometimes taking things even further. Some remain simply scared to the point of never rebuilding their previous lives and habits, others are left economically, physically, and mentally unable to do so.

That is a huge pool of customers to lose, and we can add to it those overseas visitors who feel the same and have added local travel restrictions to contend with before they can leave their own countries.

Turn on all the restrictions again, and the time needed to work through and switch them off could well prove the death knell for already struggling theatre.


To end on a positive note.
Should we come through the winter as we are now, and even see the promise of the virus receding, there is a strong possibility that the West End could see a boom as never before.

While we currently see only the brave venturing out on a regular basis, if there were to be a general acceptance that nothing worse will happen and the world can turn (and take holidays) again theatre could be first in line for spending when the lights are back up to full power. Now isn’t that a thought to end on?


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