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June 22, 2011

The Play's the Thing

By Spear's

A producer seeks funds to bring Great Expectations to the London stage. Will he be plucking Scrooge’s [golden] goose or will it be Hard Times, wonders Mark Nayler

A producer seeks funds to bring Great Expectations to the London stage. Will he be plucking Scrooge’s [golden] goose or will it be Hard Times, wonders Mark Nayler
‘This is not a game.’ So said the largest investor in a prospective West End production of Great Expectations at a presentation to potential investors yesterday. Wine and canapés were laid on at the Club at the Ivy in order to entice those present into propelling the play to its opening night. But can money really be made in the theatre, or are such investments merely fun-fuelled punts? The burden of proof was on the show’s presenters.

Great Expectations’ producer, Bruce Athol Mackinnon, was quick to remind his small audience that more people than ever are going to the theatre. Over the past six years, West End revenue has increased by 25%, with plays seeing the biggest growth in 2009/10 – a surprising statistic when one bears in mind how rough things have been economically.

Following a video-sequence featuring plenty of shots of the production’s stage and characters, gothic music and quotes praising the show in its former incarnation up in Perth a few years ago, Mackinnon got down to what the potential investors wanted to hear about: money.

At present, £1.3 million is needed to open the play in the West End. And according to the projected figures, box office sales would need to average at 46% for the 18-week booking period for a break-even, and 65% for a full recouping of investment. If the box office average for the initial running period (which could be extended if the demand was sufficient) hit 90%, a full recouping would be accompanied by a 48% return.

It is the potential for such rapid gain, said Mackinnon, which makes theatrical investment a serious commercial venture: ‘I defy anyone to find a derivative in the City that can give you that kind of return.’

The show first appeared in Perth in 2005, and the West End version shares exactly the same creative team. Mackinnon reminded his audience that the production’s success is proven by the gushing reviews the Perth show received – and by the fact that the box office there had to be reopened to accommodate the number of people who came out of the theatre wanting to go and see it again.

Curiously, though, no facts or figures pertaining to the success of the 2005 production were presented. Potential investors looking for some precedents on which to try and predict the financial success of the West End show were therefore left wanting.

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The show’s largest investor at present used to be a City stockbroker and presumably knows all about risk. She fell in love with the show after being asked to look at it by a friend who was thinking of investing, and was keen to stress Great Expectations is a real commercial opportunity: ‘In the City it’s sometimes joked that it’s better to be lucky than smart. I’d like to think this opportunity is both.’

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