A recession may still be playing out in Britain’s economy, but the West End seems to be doing just fine.

Two West End productions have just announced record takings for their shows: Mamma Mia! recently took £511,145 in the week ending October 31- its highest ever box office at either its current home the Prince of Wales or former venue the Prince Edward Theatre; and in the same week Oliver! took £829,383 – the highest recorded by any production at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

Oliver! is one of the shows beating box-office records

Oliver! is one of the shows beating box-office records

This news comes following Ambassador Theatre Group’s recent announcement that it is expanding its portfolio of 23 London and regional theatres. Husband and wife team Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire who run ATG, now dwarf the theatre empires of Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Cameron Mackintosh having spent £90 million on buying theatres currently owned by Live Nation.

The deal boosts their total playhouses to 39, making them the largest theatre owner in Britain, rivalling past, great theatre-owners such as Apollo Leisure or Stoll Moss Theatres. The expanded theatre group is now valued at £150 million with their theatres ranging from the barn-like Lyceum theatre where The Lion King has been playing for 10 years, to the intimate Donmar Warehouse and Trafalgar Studios.

West End box office takings are predicted to be up by 4 per cent so far this year, with advance sales approaching the £50 million mark. Even long running hits such as The Phantom of the Opera, which opened in 1986, currently has an advance of £2 million, audiences for Les Misérables are 20 per cent up on 2008 and its advance is £1.5 million and The Lion King, which has already been seen by eight million people, still reaches 93 per cent capacity at the Lyceum’s 2,000 seats, and takes a weekly average of £500,000 at the box office.

And the run of success is not confined to just musicals. Even new plays, a territory usually about art more than money, is doing good business. Enron, Lucy Prebble’s play about the US financial scandal, enjoyed sell-out audiences in Chichester and the Royal Court, and has already taken £750,000 at the Noël Coward theatre in the run up to its opening there in January.

But West End producers aren’t taking any chances, and are peppering a host of productions with big name stars this winter. Kim Cattrall will star in a new production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives at the Vaudeville Theatre from February, Keira Knightley and Damian Lewis will star in a revival of Molière’s Misanthrope at the Comedy theatre next month, and Rupert Friend and Gemma Arterton star in The Little Dog Laughed at the Garrick Theatre from January.

Paul Raven.

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