Business is down and security is up as West End legit girds to weather public preoccupation with the Persian Gulf war and concern over possible terrorism by Iraqi agents or sympathizers.
Adding to operating overheads, legit, opera and concert venues are all deploying more guard patrols, in some cases on a round-the-clock basis. Most theaters now insist that parcels and briefcases be searched and then checked, and frisking is also back in vogue at some situations.
The moves are part of a general security step-up at public buildings and military installations around the country.
In London, one exception so far to search-and-frisk is the Royal National Theater complex on the South Bank of the Thames, though backstage security has been tightened and front-of-house patrols by uniformed guards increased.
Theater officials in the commercial West End say only the hit musicals, most of them running to capacity or near, are withstanding the boxoffice sag. “But everything else has been quite seriously affected,” admits factotum Roger Filer of the big Stoll Moss chain.
Another official, George Biggs, said business for the six Maybox playhouses he runs was off around 20% since war’s outbreak. “Into The Woods,” the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine tuner at Maybox’s Phoenix Theater, is one of the shows clipped at the gate.
Advance ticket sales are “definitely down,” and prewar group reservations from the U.S. are canceling, according to Filer. “We had one big [cancellation] last week,” he said, “and we’ve been tipped off there will be others.”
The cancellations follow reports of postponed travel to Europe by wary Americans. British Airways, with more than 30% of the North Atlantic passenger market, last week reported a 20% drop in first and business class travelers. With fewer Yanks turning up here in what would anyhow be a soft period, there are plenty of posh hotel rooms and pricey restaurant tables, as well as theater seats, going begging.
Even before the war started, London legit was faced with a likely b.o. downturn thanks to a deepening recession, continuing high interest rates and rising unemployment.
Security at London theaters isn’t new. Such arrangements date back to the 1970s and a series of mainland U.K. terrorist attacks by the outlawed Irish Republican Army. Since then, visible security measures – notably frisking and bag searches – have waxed and waned, depending on IRA activity.