We speak to groups and people from across the theatre sector about why it’s more important than ever to support the arts. 

It’s no surprise that the theatre industry took a major hit during the pandemic but three years on and it’s looking bigger and better than pre-Covid which is great news for theatregoers.

It’d be hard to find somebody happier to be back than Chris Taylor who runs the Wey Valley Theatre Travel Club and lives and breathes theatre. I managed to catch her just as her coach packed full of 58 arrived in London for a matinee performance of Phantom of the Opera at His Majesty’s Theatre.

The Phantom of the Opera

Source: Johan Persson

GTO Chris Taylor has taken her group to see countless shows including the spectacular The Phantom of the Opera

“Now, it’s like we’ve never been away. It was a bit of a slow return after restrictions were lifted but now, we’re back. I missed it so much, more than anything.”

Chris grew up surrounded by the theatre and went to her first musical when she was just five. She has fond memories of her parents being big musical fans and of reading through the old albums for shows including South Pacific.

GTO Chris Taylor

Chris Taylor.

She told me: “It was like being in a different world and I’ve loved it ever since. We took 5,000 people to the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton (our local theatre) in 2022. 

“We do about four or five London theatre trips every year and also go to Chichester Festival Theatre a lot. Theatre trips are always popular and almost always sell out.

“It’s also great because you get group prices; we mostly do musicals, but we’ll see all sorts. For 2023 we’re looking forward to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Life of Pi. In terms of personal favourites, it’s so hard, like choosing a favourite child but I’d say Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, Wicked and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.”

Theatre audiences are up from pre-Covid levels

Speaking on London Live TV, Anne Ewart, managing director of Dewynters, an advertising agency for live entertainment, said that they’d seen attendances in 2022 up by just over 7% on 2019 which she described as “quite phenomenal when you think how tough it was at the start of the year”.

She added: “Despite all the curveballs we have, our audiences have stayed with us which is something that we obviously hoped, and we’ve worked really hard to keep them with us. I would say that having had theatre taken away, people realise what’s important to them and want to make sure it’s part of their lives going forward.”

That’s certainly what GTO Louise Thomas has found too. The organiser, who runs the Open University Theatre Group Bookers Club, said despite it taking a while to build people’s trust up again to go to the theatre, she’s now seeing a return to pre-Covid levels.

“Personally I think theatre and the arts contribute to wider positive mental health and wellbeing of the population.”

GTO Louise Thomas

GTO of the Year® finalist 2019 Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

And it’s the feel-good shows and in particular musicals including & Juliet, Pretty Woman, Aladdin that have been popular among her group in recent months as well as classic plays from the likes of Agatha Christie.

Louise told me that she’s noticed her members are being more selective with what they book perhaps in part due to the cost. She’s also seen an increase in the popularity of pantomimes, and they have twice as many performances on sale than pre-Covid.

I asked Louise why she felt it was so important to support the theatre and the arts in general. She said: “Personally I think theatre and the arts contribute to wider positive mental health and wellbeing of the population. Who doesn’t enjoy listening to music, reading a book or going to the theatre? Every single person should have that opportunity. ”

Louise’s top shows for 2023

Personally, I’m looking forward to the the 50th Anniversary Tour (and West End run) of the Rocky Horror show, Moulin Rouge and Jesus Christ Superstar tour, however for the OU Theatre Group Bookers Club members we’d have to say Panto – Cinderella at MK Theatre, Aladdin and Pretty Woman!

West End reaction

The West End seems to be back even bigger than before with a string of huge new productions offering audiences even more choice.

Josh Behn of Disney Tickets, the direct ticketing provider for Disney Theatrical which produces iconic productions including The Lion King, Aladdin and Frozen, said their enquiries are back to levels not seen since 2019.

Disney’s Aladdin musical

Source: Deen Van Meer, ©Disney

Cast from the original London production of Aladdin - the show will take to the road in autumn 2023

He told us: “There has been a noticeable increase in confidence from group travel organisers in 2023 and with international groups returning too, this has meant business has noticeably increased from last year.

“We introduced a range of booking benefits post-covid such as flexi-tickets and guest credit, and whilst we absolutely still offer these, the demand from group bookers for such assurances is less, purely because travel confidence is back and those barriers such as travel restrictions are no longer interrupting travel plans.”

Ben Delahunty-Jones from ticketing agency Group Line, crowned the best for groups in the 2022 Group Leisure & Travel Awards said they’d also seen group booking patterns return to pre-pandemic levels adding that the most popular shows at the moment were The Lion King, Wicked, We Will Rock You and Mrs. Doubtfire.

GTO Olivia Goodfellow with her sister at the performance of 2:22 A Ghost Story

Olivia (right) with her sister at 2:22 A Ghost Story.

GTO Olivia Goodfellow, Enfield Over 50s Forum, shares her top three shows she’s seen recently:

1. On The Ropes at the Park Theatre: a true story of a boxer from Tottenham who fell on hard times thanks to the wind rush scandal - excellent reggae music and brilliant casting.

2. ABBA Voyage at ABBA Arena: is amazing - hard to believe they’re not actually on stage - this technology will surely open up the way for other performers.

3. Message in a Bottle at the Peacock Theatre: I have seen it three times and have already booked for the new run in October 2023. It’s contemporary dance to the music of Sting and a background story of refugees and humans being uprooted around the world.

Returning to regional theatres

We’re fortunate enough to have a wealth of fantastic regional theatres which are brilliant for groups around the country. Not least Chichester Festival Theatre which has seen a “steady increase” in the number of group bookers over the past 12 months following the “understandable decline in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic”.

Crowds gather outside Chichester Festival Theatre

Source: Philip Vile

Chichester Festival Theatre has seen a steady increase in group bookers over 2022-2023 following the pandemic.

Jessica Blake-Lobb, marketing manager (corporate) said: “On the opening night of South Pacific in 2021, following nearly 18 months of lockdown, as the lights dimmed in the auditorium and before a single note was played, the audience broke into spontaneous cheering.

“That heartfelt reaction showed just how much people had missed live theatre, and the unique buzz that coming together to share an uplifting and exhilarating musical can bring. There’s simply nothing else like it to lift the spirits and transport you into another world.”

It has a bright summer ahead too with “encouraging” bookings for the Festival season and some of its Minerva Theatre shows already nearing capacity.

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Jessica added: “Our spectacular musicals have always been an annual highlight; this year, in addition to the summer centrepiece – Rodgers & Hammerstein’s beloved The Sound of Music – we have two other musicals: Sondheim’s Assassins and the new musical Rock Follies based on the iconic 1970s TV series. But audiences also appreciate both new and classic drama and comedy, whether that’s Eileen Atkins in 4000 Miles or Rory Bremner in Quiz.”

“There’s simply nothing else like it to lift the spirits and transport you into another world.”

Jessica Blake-Lobb, Chichester Festival Theatre

Paul Woolf is CEO of the Kings Theatre in Portsmouth. He said the pandemic allowed them to take a step back and assess their overall business strategy including reviewing their existing group bookings processes.

He explained: “We were able to re-evaluate our group bookings activity and put in place a more direct and proactive system, and we are beginning to see the fruits of our hard work.

The cast of the 2022 pantomime at King's Theatre, Plymouth on stage

The King’s Theatre in Portsmouth took the opportunity to improve its group booking system encouraging more GTOs. 

“The overall consequence result now is that we have streamlined and improved our approach and our group bookings are now looking significantly healthier.

“Alongside our improved group booking process we have significantly enhanced our programme and self-produced several shows including The Pompey Panto, Titanic and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. As a result, we have seen a rebound despite the constant “bad” news and impact on people’s discretionary spend.”