As with so many landmarks and distinctive districts within my constituency, I am immensely proud and privileged to represent the West End ? the epicentre of British commercial theatre and largest theatre district in the world, on which 41,000 jobs depend. Bordered by The Strand to the south, Oxford Street to the north, Regent Street to the west and Kingsway to the east, one cannot fail to be captivated by the buzz and atmosphere of the area ? especially at this time of year, when families flock from far and wide for a seasonal treat.
The first West End venue opened in the 1660s when the first of several theatres was opened on Drury Lane. A theatre has remained on the site, in several different incarnations, ever since. The West End that we know today began taking shape in the 19th Century when many of the striking theatre buildings that still remain were erected and theatre-going became a fashionable pursuit among the middle and upper classes. New West End theatres continued to be built throughout the early years of the 20th Century, while the post-war years saw the opening of London’s two great, modern, centres of theatre, The National Theatre (just outside my constituency’s boundaries) and the Barbican.
Last year was first time gross box office revenue broke the £400m barrier, with a staggering 268 new productions being launched. The opening of major musicals such as Monty Python’s Spamalot (which my secretary claims to have seen a staggering six times!), Wicked, Dirty Dancing and The Sound Of Music led to major surges in West End ticket sales – 12,357,427, the highest on record.
But despite a dazzling, glamorous exterior, fundamental problems are entrenched in the industry. Inevitably, the rise of alternative, comparatively cheap, entertainment such as the cinema has played a large part in diverting audiences’ attention.
The cost of maintaining such extravagant buildings also poses a constant challenge, with the need for modernisation growing ever more desperate. A Theatres Trust report four years ago suggested £250m worth of investment is needed. The listed status of buildings means it is difficult for the necessary changes to be made in order to bring venues into 21st century. The management of one well-known theatre has expressed serious concerns to me about the impediment to accessibility (not only for audiences but also for the delivery of imperative day-to-day supplies) listed status can pose. Although difficult to monitor, a recent report suggests that the congestion charge may also have had a slight negative impact on sales.
Despite the boom in ticket sales it is the producers who hire venues, not the theatre-owners themselves, who take box office receipts. The need for a levy on each ticket sold is therefore one idea that is being debated in order for the real estate to live up to the demands of modern theatre-goers. I suspect that the next generation of attendees may not be altogether convinced by the charms of crumbling Victorian buildings!
The future of many West End theatres has been made more secure, however, through their purchase by major commercial theatre organisations such as the Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group, the Ambassador Theatre Group, and Cameron Mackintosh’s Delfont Mackintosh Group.
In addition, 2008 will mark the opening of the Sondheim Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, the first new venue there since 1931, which looks set to reinvigorate the industry and attract investors, performers and audiences from around the globe.
The West End has a loyal group of regular visitors, with theatregoers visiting the West End 6.2 times per year on average. With loyalty such as this, as well as innovative schemes such as the highly successful ‘Get Into London Theatre’ and ‘Kids Week’ campaigns, I am hopeful that Theatreland is guaranteed a flourishing future ? although the industry should avoid becoming complacent in order to meet the challenges posed by the cloud on the horizon that is the necessary capital expenditure on real estate.