If you thought the commercial West End wasn’t quite commercial enough, prepare to think again. Tonight (6 April 2006), tourist body Visit London launches a programme of live on-stage adverts to attract more visitors to London's Theatreland.

Scripted and produced specifically for the theatre and ‘aired’ during show intervals, the adverts will be performed live across Europe and the US this spring as part of a new promotional campaign to encourage visitors to the capital. London theatregoers can see a special preview of the commercials tonight at the West End’s Comedy Theatre, where Robert Lindsay will perform a three-minute ad before the evening showing of Steptoe and Son.

The Visit London advert will tour, playing before established shows including Stomp, Mamma Mia! and Saturday Night Fever, in cities such as New York, Madrid, Dublin and Philadelphia. Each theatrical advert is separately scripted with the storyline drawing on the specific cultural similarities between the visited city and London and will star a known local personality in a cameo role.

While unconventional, theatre commercials are not entirely new: there was a commercial break during the interval of a performance of Saturday Night Fever at the Apollo Victoria in March 2005 (See The Goss, 15 Feb 2005) in aid of Comic Relief. At the time, producers said they “do not support this as a way forward for advertising within the theatre”. TV adverts were also parodied on stage in Jerry Springer - The Opera, in which the cast performed some “commercials” as part of the show.

Commenting on the initiative today, James Bidwell, chief executive of Visit London, said: “London’s theatrical heritage and reputation are revered worldwide. This is a highly creative way of leveraging this unique platform to connect with potential visitors to London and we are proud to spearhead this world-first. We are very grateful to the support of the participating productions and theatres across the world, enabling London to stage a genuine world-first for tourism and the theatre industry.”

Rupert Gavin, for the producers of Steptoe and Son and for ATG, commented: "We are really excited to be working with Visit London on the live ads in this ground-breaking initiative. The West End is the showcase for the best theatre in the world, and the Steptoes are, of course, the quintessential Londoners.”

London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, added: “London’s theatre industry is a wonderful example of the capital’s creativity and diversity and the theatrical experience is a key part of London’s cultural landscape. The industry’s enthusiasm combined with the cooperation of other theatres in Europe and the US means that London is able to stage a significant ‘first’. This is an innovative way to encourage visitors to our city and I wish the tour the very best.”

Visit London will spend an estimated £3million in the US and £2.6million in Europe on promoting the city over the next year, an undisclosed proportion of which will be spent on the theatre advertising campaign.

- by Caroline Ansdell