The play’s the thing: the contribution of theatre to London’s economy

To many, London is the theatre capital of the world, boasting a total of 241 professional theatres with more than 110,000 seats. These offer a myriad of drama, musicals and comedy, sometimes for years on end. Agatha Christie’s murder mystery ‘The Mousetrap’ has been playing at St Martin’s Theatre since 1952. According to a 2014 National Theatre report, almost twice as many people visit the theatre every year in London as watch Premier League football.


The majority of London’s 40 West End theatres are concentrated around Shaftesbury Avenue, the Strand and nearby streets. They are receiving houses (they do not produce their own repertoire but receive touring theatre companies) and often show transfers of major productions from the Royal National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company. Many important London theatres are located outside the West End’s ‘theatre land’. They include the Royal National Theatre on the South Bank, the Old Vic and Globe Theatres, Sadler’s Wells in Rosebery Avenue and Barbican Arts Centre to the east, and the Royal Court Theatre in Chelsea. Suburban theatres, such as Bromley’s Churchill Theatre, often show performances that then move on to the West End.

London theatres throughout the capital also benefit enormously from Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), considered to be the world’s biggest live theatre company of its kind. Headed by its founder, co-owner and joint chief executive Rosemary Squire OBE, ATG is currently involved with 46 London theatres, 12 of which are in the West End. An LCCI member, ATG’s business model combines theatre ownership and management, theatre production, and marketing and ticketing operations.

The Society of London Theatre’s (SOLT) 2015 Box Office figures showed 2015 to be the best year ever for London theatre. Collectively, London’s theatres yielded a gross revenue of £633 million in 2015, up 1.6 per cent compared with 2014. Ticket sales generated over £105 million in VAT receipts for the Treasury. Overall theatre attendance in 2015 was 14,742,588, with an average weekly attendance of 283,511 (278,205 in 2014).

Musicals saw the highest number of attendances in 2015 – over eight million – worth more than £385 million in revenue. London’s dramas attracted over four million attendances, bringing in £141 million to the theatres’ coffers. Opera, dance, performance and general entertainment had well over two million attendances, which contributed £107 million in income. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the highest weekly attendance was reached in week 52, between 28 December 2015 and 3 January 2016, when the pantomime season was in full swing.


In terms of both ticket sales and attendances, 2014 was the previous best year. 2015 saw a very slight increase of 1.66 per cent in average ticket price paid to £42.99 (up from £42.29 on the previous year). Advance sales were up by 14 per cent on average during 2015, peaking at £107 million in December. This suggested continuing demand and a reduction in discounting, as evidence of the increasing popularity of London theatre.

Caro Newling, SOLT President, said: “Audiences have yet again demonstrated an ever-increasing appetite for theatre on a scale that plants London theatre front and centre of cultural life. The range of productions on offer, coupled with initiatives to encourage new generations to enjoy live performance, has clearly hit the mark. The value of the investment is measured in pounds but the enrichment derived goes far beyond the numbers of seats sold.”

Theatre-goers won’t just attend their performance and go home. They will also probably have pre- or post-theatre dinner and drinks in a restaurant (plus the inevitable ice cream or drinks at the theatre during the interval). Unless they live very close to the venue, theatre-goers will also have to pay to park their cars, or use public transport or taxis to reach their destination. An Arts Council England report found that each West End theatre audience member spends an average of £53.77 per visit on travel, food and drink (and possibly childcare). Such sums will contribute substantially to London’s hospitality and other sectors, as well as the theatre itself.


Do London’s leaders support its theatres? Outgoing Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, gave £1 million worth of public funding towards the redevelopment of the Lyric Hammersmith in 2013, one of the most significant cultural developments in West London for decades. The money helped to transform the Lyric Hammersmith into a state-of-theart cultural and educational centre that serves the community as well as theatre-goers, for example, by supporting and training young people.

The Mayor has also backed new initiatives to bring live theatre to more Londoners, including ‘Circulate’, a three-year programme of outdoor performance where British and international artists toured Outer London boroughs. ‘Circulate’ received £498,000 from Arts Council England and built on the London 2012 cultural festival. It brought together The Albany, Watermans, Harrow Arts Centre, TARA Arts, Millfield Arts Centre, artsdepot and Emergency Exit Arts as well as the Greater London Authority and Audience Agency.


Mayor Johnson said: “The success of London theatres is down to the fantastically rich variety of programming and exciting innovations, from live screenings of productions at cinemas to performances staged outdoors or in unusual locations. At a critical time for funding, London’s theatres are showing real imagination in the way they attract audiences and funding. I will do all I can to support this world-beating – and vital – component of our cultural landscape. From the bright lights of the West End, to our thriving fringe, to the rise of immersive theatre in the unlikeliest of places, the quality, variety and breadth on offer here is unrivalled.”

London’s theatres employ thousands of people and bring in two thirds of a billion pounds annually, so they are clearly very important to the capital’s economy. Nor is this trade confined to the playhouses alone – bars, restaurants and London cabbies all benefit from theatre-goers’ custom. Survey show that four out of five tourists say culture is one of the main reasons for coming to London. Finally, it must also be noted that the output of London’s theatres also has a global impact. In the words of Mayor Johnson: “We can be immensely proud that this important sector produces writing, production and acting talent, as well as packing houses out here and overseas, stands tall internationally in film and television.”

Alexa Michael, LCCI Business Information Executive

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