Annual box office receipts for the West End have topped half a billion pounds for the third year in a row, despite a slight drop in attendance figures.

Figures released today (31 January 2012) by the Society of London Theatre (SOLT) showed record sales of £528,375,874 in 2011, a 3.1% increase on a like-for-like basis on the £512,331,808 taken in 2010 (or a 0.9% net increase). In the first year at the higher 20% VAT rate, London theatre ticket sales generated £88,062,646 for the Treasury (up from £76,304,737) in 2010.

Attendances for 2011 fell just shy of 14 million in 2011 – the 13,915,185 theatre visits made last year is 1.73% down on 2010 and 2.5% down on 2009’s all-time high of 14,257,922. According to SOLT, this is due in part to a higher number of dark weeks in several bigger West End venues during changeovers and installation periods for big new shows such as The Wizard of Oz (London Palladium), Shrek The Musical (Theatre Royal Drury Lane), Ghost The Musical (Piccadilly Theatre), Rock of Ages (Shaftesbury Theatre) and Matilda The Musical (Cambridge Theatre). As a result, in commercial houses, there were 146 dark weeks in 2011 versus just 85 in 2010).

While new big-budget musicals moved in, revenues for the genre rose by a modest 1%. Plays by contrast had a bumper growth year, with revenues up 10% (to £177,842,072) and audiences queuing overnight and/or around the block for the likes of Jerusalem, Much Ado About Nothing, One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard III, War Horse and Frankenstein. Hit plays are also nudging in on venues more accustomed to musicals in recent years, such as War Horse at the New London, One Man, Two Guvnors at the Adelphi and, just announced to replace Legally Blonde at the Savoy, Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys.

Mark Rubinstein, current president of SOLT, commented: “We are extremely proud that our theatres have yet again gone on to achieve another record-breaking year of sales, with many shows announcing record-breaking runs of their own. Despite the prevailing rigours of the economic climate, theatregoers have acted with their feet and wallets and shown just how much they value a trip to one of our world-class shows. We can confirm buoyant box office advances for 2012, a year in which we look forward to welcoming millions more national and international visitors through our theatre doors.”

A striking trend born out by the comparative table of London theatre attendances between 1986 and 2011 is the disproportionate rise in ticket prices as opposed to audiences. While attendances rose 26%, over the same time period box office takings rocketed by 347% - meaning the average ticket price in 2011 was £37.97 versus just £10.95 in 1986.

Speaking to Whatsonstage.com, Rubinstein attributed rising costs to a variety of factors including: increased VAT receipts (Theatreland paid the Treasury circa £14million in 1986 vesrus today’s £88million); costlier, more high-tech productions; and rising venue and ticketing technology expenses, as well as inflation. “The profits in the average producer’s pocket have not been getting fatter,” he said.

SOLT’s figures are compiled from the 52 major theatres in central London, primarily commercial but also including grant-aided flagships such as the National, Royal Court, Almeida and Donmar Warehouse. Looking ahead, Rubinstein said that member venues were already carrying a £50 million advance for 2012, up on the same period in previous years, and that bookings for many long-running “brand”-reputation productions during the Olympics have also been strong.