Page last updated at 13:06 GMT, Tuesday, 8 July 2008 14:06 UK

London theatres' 'best ever year'

Lee Mead
Mead won his Joseph role through the BBC's Any Dream Will Do

London's theatres enjoyed their most successful year on record in 2007, with attendances exceeding 13 million for the first time, according to a report.

The Society of London Theatre's annual report said that box office takings last year rose to almost 470m.

But the number of plays opening was down by a third on the previous year.

The report said two-thirds of tickets sold were for musicals, with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Grease doing particularly well.

The shows' stars were controversially picked on reality TV programmes.

Both attracted younger first-time audiences, though the report said it is not clear whether these new theatregoers returned to see other shows.

David Sillito talks to stars from the musical Wicked about reality TV and theatre

A big-name lead also helped the play Equus, starring Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe.

The total revenue created was 469.9m - up almost 70m on the previous year.

According to SOLT this upturn was also boosted by a number of big musicals that opened at the end of 2006, among them Wicked, Spamalot and The Sound of Music.

These were joined in 2007 by Broadway smash Hairspray, while Macbeth with Patrick Stewart and King Lear starring Sir Ian McKellen were also sold-out successes.

Last year's success carried over into the first half of 2008, with attendances up 2.29% on the equivalent period in 2007.

West End attendances 2007

But recent weeks have seen a slight downturn that suggests 2008 as a whole may not match last year's record-breaking attendances and ticket receipts.

Advance booking revenues are also down on this time last year, according to figures supplied by the Society of London Theatre.

Some recent West End offerings have failed to pull the crowds, including a musical version of Gone with the Wind that closed in June after just 79 performances.

"There were lots of big openings in the first half of this year, several of which did not live up to expectations," said Terri Paddock, editorial director of the What's On Stage website.

"In terms of musicals there aren't as many big openings in the rest of the year," she added, citing the so-called "credit crunch" as a possible contributory factor.

Total performances: 17,455
Total attendances: 13.6m
Average attendance: 781
Total revenue: 469.9m

SOLT said it would be "very pleased" if this year's overall takings came close to 2007's.

"The story this year is of a vibrant sector," said its commercial manager Paul James. "I think we are set fair for an excellent year."

However, he continued, "we are obviously measuring ourselves against a record-breaking 'annus mirabilis'."

Takings for the end of this year are expected to rise with the upcoming revival of Oliver!, whose stars were chosen on BBC One reality TV show I'd Do Anything.

The Royal Shakespeare Company's new production of Hamlet, starring Doctor Who actor David Tennant, will also be a big draw.

The play transfers from the RSC's Stratford-upon-Avon base to London's Novello theatre in December - the same month Oliver! begins previewing at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

David Tennant as Hamlet
Tennant will play Hamlet in Stratford-upon-Avon, then London
Other plays opening this year include a stage version of the Dustin Hoffman film Rain Man, in which Hollywood star Josh Hartnett will appear.

Kenneth Branagh will also be back in a new version of Anton Chekhov's play Ivanov, by playwright Sir Tom Stoppard.

Little Britain star David Walliams makes his West End debut in October alongside Sir Michael Gambon in the Harold Pinter play No Man's Land.

This month, meanwhile, has seen Disney's High School Musical arrive in London for a 10-week run at the Hammersmith Apollo.

Speaking to The World at One on BBC Radio Four, actor and theatre director Sam West said it was "great people are coming to the capital to see shows".

However, he expressed concerns about long-running musicals having a detrimental impact on non-musical theatre.

"A divide should not grow up between the audiences for musicals and straight plays," he said.

"We must be careful a belief doesn't begin that plays don't belong in the West End."

The cast of High School Musical
High School Musical is playing at the Hammersmith Apollo in west London
"The only problem of a musical running for years is that that theatre can't play anything else," he continued.

"There should be room for a 'rapid-response unit' of cheaper plays that cost less to put on and cost less to see."

According to SOLT's annual report, residents of Greater London purchased about one third of London theatre tickets last year.

Theatregoers from the rest of the UK bought another third, with the remainder snapped up by visitors from overseas.

The Society of London Theatre represents the producers, theatre owners and managers of the major commercial and grant-aided theatres in London.

The trade association has been collating box office data since 1980.

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