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Audiences take a shine to West End stars

Guardian Culture 26th January 2009

Their presence drew autograph-hunting crowds to the West End's stage doors. And the cachet of stars such as Josh Hartnett and David Tennant helped attract record audiences to London's theatres last year.

Attendances at plays and musicals reached nearly 14m in 2008 - a 1% increase on the previous year, which was also a record breaker, the Society of London Theatre (Solt) said. There were also record box office takings of almost £480.6m, up by more than £10m on the previous year.

While the critics have not always been ecstatic - Hartnett's performance in Rain Man was described by the Guardian's Michael Billington as "perfectly competent" - big Hollywood names and reality television shows in which audiences help choose the cast are credited with bringing in newcomers and younger theatre-goers.

Richard Pulford, chief executive of Solt, cited the stage version of the Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman film Rain Man, at the Apollo, and Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum in David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow at the Old Vic, as among the top star draws of 2008.

Pulford said: "Josh Harnett did very well in Rain Man. He gave a terrific performance. And it had a film behind it, which makes a difference. Kenneth Branagh in [Checkov's] Ivanov at the Donmar pulled in very good audiences - he's both a film and theatre star."

He said Tennant, the Doctor Who star, was another terrific draw as Hamlet. "I don't think the Royal Shakespeare Company has ever had such good audiences in London. Stars always have an impact. People are less likely to see a play they've never heard of, by a writer they've never heard of and starring someone they don't know. Hollywood stars often attract a new audience - usually a younger audience."

Pulford said television shows, such as the BBC's I'd do Anything, in which audiences voted to select who would play Nancy and the lead role in the musical Oliver!, were also helping to boost box office numbers.

"The reality shows do help to raise the profile of West End theatre," he said. "There are queues around the block for Oliver! When the television shows go out it may be months before the theatre production's on stage, but the television audience will try to book, and then go for another show when they find out it isn't on yet."

So far, the signs are that London theatres will continue to enjoy success in 2009, with Imelda Staunton, star of Vera Drake and Harry Potter, and Gavin & Stacey's Mathew Horne in Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr Sloane among the new attractions. "Advance ticket sales are at historically high levels," said Pulford. "At the moment they're at £57m - about two years ago they were £30m."

He denied big-name productions and the revival of classics were pushing out new talent, pointing to the success of The Female of the Species, allegedly based on Germaine Greer's life.

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