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Boffo legit biz in Blighty

Attendance up 3% from 2003 figures; receipts increase 6%

LONDON — London’s so-called “theaterland” clocked just shy of 12 million visitors during 2004, a second-best attendance figure for the seven decades such records have been kept. Receipts tallied £341,758,566 ($643,506,887), a record-breaking sum.

Attendance of 11,938,999 marks a 3% improvement on the same figure for 2003, while receipts are up 6% from ’03.

The data come from the Society of London Theater, the capital’s legit trade org, which in May will publish full details and analysis of the 2004 receipts.

Such cheering news runs counter to the gloom-and-doom scenarios on which the media have thrived for much of the past year, until the arrival in quick succession in the fall of three major musicals — “The Woman in White,” “The Producers” and “Mary Poppins.” That trifecta of tuners gave a financial buoyancy to the last quarter on the West End that certainly wasn’t felt earlier in the year, particularly among straight plays.

Indeed, one can only assume the figures reflect a late-summer turnaround in the fortunes of the West End. Before that point, such critical favorites as “Jerry Springer — The Opera” had been performing less well than expected, while such supposed prestige entries as Imelda Staunton in “Calico,” Alicia Witt in “The Shape of Things” and Julia McKenzie and Katie Finneran in “Fuddy Meers” saw a fast fade.

Since that time, Christian Slater sold out a hefty chunk of his 144 perfs in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and even so risky a West End entry as “Festen” — with its themes of child abuse and incest — could end up in the black by the time it closes in April.

The figures, compiled from independently audited box office returns, relate to ticket sales in SOLT’s 52 member theaters, which include such cultural temples as the state-funded National Theater.

Unlike Broadway, whose annual figures don’t take into account venues specifically geared to opera and dance, SOLT includes the Royal Opera House and the London Coliseum, the latter the now-refurbished home to English National Opera, in its tabulation.

The fact remains that the climate for serious plays in London is only marginally less chilly than it is on Broadway. It’s for that reason, among others, that composer-impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber is thought to be keenly entertaining offers to buy at least four of his stable of West End playhouses.

The ones he is most interested in offloading? Those smaller venues devoted to straight plays.

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