Theatre Survey

Theatre Breaks’ Theatre Survey

Theatre Survey London Theatre BreaksThe data from Theatre Breaks’ Theatre Survey, released this week, presents an interesting snapshot of the views of theatregoers from around the UK.

What they think about the theatres that they go to and the shows that they see.

So what do the heads attached to the bums on seats think?


We want to be Willy Wonka and Mary Poppins but we want to see Wicked and however much the theatre industry worries about improving their product, most of us just want a smile!

Here are some highlights from the Theatre Survey by Theatre Breaks released this week.

2016 has seen the theatre industry focus in on the behaviour of audiences. But as theatre tries to become relevant to a wider proportion of the population, the traditional theatre audiences are feeling more and more under threat, as new audiences introduce new problems and theatres try and find more ways to access the consumer wallet.

So as 2017 sees ushers clamber over chairs to deliver drinks and theatres considering firing lasers in an attempt to stop unsuitable behaviour, what do our audiences think as they try to concentrate on the show being performed in front of them?

The top shows we want to see next.

Amazingly after 10 years, Wicked is still the pick of the crop when it comes to West End musicals folks wish to see but increasingly amongst the more irregular theatregoers. For the first time ever it rose above Les Miserables as the Parisian waif slipped into 3rd behind Disney’s The Lion King.

Motown and Aladdin, both 2016 newcomers, have made an immediate impression in the top 10. With the closing of War Horse, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child took over the mantle of the play most people want to see – not that it will do anyone any good!

Here are the top 20

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  1. Wicked
  2. The Lion King
  3. Les Miserables
  4. Aladdin
  5. Jersey Boys
  6. Motown
  7. Matilda
  8. Kinky Boots
  9. Book of Mormon
  10. Beautiful
  11. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
  12. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (not currently on in the UK)
  13. The Bodyguard (not currently on in the UK)
  14. The Phantom of the Opera
  15. Dreamgirls
  16. Cats (not currently on in the UK)
  17. School of Rock
  18. Billy Elliot (touring to June 2017)
  19. Hamilton (opens Autumn 2017)
  20. Mamma Mia!

Quote of the Survey: Next show? Les Miserables (I only have 2 more times to see it and I’ll have been 200 times)

What character would you like to be?

For a show to be a success, the audience should feel an empathy with the characters. So beyond the question of what show audiences would like to see, we asked what characters they would like to be.

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Harry Stott (Michael), Laura Michelle Kelly (Mary Poppins) & Charlotte Spencer (Jane) 2004 – Photo by Michael Le Poer Trench Copyright CML

Voting, women all seem to want special powers – with Mary Poppins, Elphaba and Matilda holding the top three spots. Next on the list are magically connected Cinderella and Dorothy – showing that if you can’t have magical powers yourself, make sure you know someone who has! At six, Sandy, from Grease, is the only relative normal one amongst them, but even she is able to put in a fairly major transformation when she needs to get her man.

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Image: Matt Crockett

Willy Wonka grabs the top spot for the boys but the rest of the top 5 are a much more mixed bag, completed by misunderstood but heroic Jean Valjean, mysterious Phantom, cool Danny Zucko and unique Shrek!

Ignoring the theatre industries angst about gender casting, popular roles for the women included Aladdin, Charlie Bucket, Billy Elliot and the Artful Dodger. Of course the boys have a traditionally rich source of female roles in Trunchbowl, Turnblad and Twanky, but others were just as keen to be Eponine, Sally Bowles and Elphaba!

Unsurprising the votes were split down the middle of the gender divide for Rocky Horror’s FranknFurter!

Top Roles

Female Roles (Top 15):

  1. Mary Poppins
  2. Elphaba (Wicked)
  3. Matilda
  4. Cinderella
  5. Dorothy (The Wizard of Oz)
  6. Sandy (Grease)
  7. Baby (Dirty Dancing)
  8. Maria (Sound of Music)
  9. Christine (The Phantom of the Opera)
  10. Eponine (Les Miserables)
  11. Eliza Dolittle (My Fair Lady)
  12. Nancy (Oliver!)
  13. Roxie (Chicago)
  14. Glinda (Wicked)
  15. Annie (Annie)

Male Roles (Top 15):

  1. Willy Wonka (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)
  2. Jean Valjean (Les Miserables)
  3. The Phantom (The Phantom of the Opera)
  4. Danny (Grease)
  5. Shrek
  6. Javert (Les Miserables)
  7. Aladdin
  8. Fagin (Oliver!)
  9. Simba (The Lion King)
  10. Charlie Bucket (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)
  11. Billy Elliot
  12. Scrooge
  13. Hamlet
  14. Maurius (Les Miserables)
  15. Macbeth

Quote of the Survey: “I used to think I was Danny Zuko, increasingly I fear I’m Edna Turnblad.”

Phone Control

Mobiles are becoming more of a talking point, with actors stepping out of role to admonish forgetful or selfish audience members or audience members taking it upon themselves to administer punitive measures.

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We asked what people would like to see, put in place, to deal with transgressors. The most popular solution is a personal plea, live on stage, but a surprising number thought that stewards could do more, although the idea of laser-wielding ushers was not so popular.

We suggested a range of measures. Here they are in order of popularity.

  1. A personal plea from on stage
  2. Stewards on duty
  3. Recorded announcement before the show
  4. A themed message before the show
  5. A note in the foyer
  6. A note in the programme
  7. Reminded when tickets are bought
  8. A downloadable app

3% said they didn’t mind people using their mobile phones.

Of course, there is nothing to stop a theatre adopting all of the above measures and any more that they can think of – it obviously is a major problem and one that needs dealing with.

How welcoming was the theatre?

Forget all the razzmatazz on stage or the grandeur of a Grade One listed, Jewel Box theatre, any theatre, on any night must make sure its guests get a good welcome. A friendly face and a helpful word in the foyer is as important as all the glitz and glamour on stage, if not more so. It also comes cheaper than a TV star in the cast or extra toilets in the basement!

This year we focused more on what audiences think that theatres can do to improve their welcome – with both limited option questions and open questions, giving audiences the opportunity to let their imagination run riot.

If we are being positive, a massive 93% of UK audiences feel either “very” or “quite” welcome at the theatre with less than 2% critical of the welcome. However, dig down and these figures hide some  unwelcome truths.

Over 30% of audience who, in a very British way, felt only quite welcome, had a lot more to say, about their night at the theatre, when asked to offer suggestions. Friendliness at the door is key. More smiles, more welcoming words, but also more help is needed. Plus more information (both verbal and visual) about where to go and what to do.

Being part of a large crowd, in a small, dark, unfamiliar area, can be very disconcerting and even the most experienced of theatregoers can feel lost and vulnerable in an unfamiliar venue.

Theatre Survey London Theatre Breaks

  • 62.5% Very welcoming – they couldn’t have done anything more
  • 31% Quite welcoming
  • 5.5% Neither welcoming or otherwise
  • 1% The theatre didn’t seem to care whether I was there or not
  • 1 person said it was like they didn’t even want me there

New Ideas

At Seat Bar Service

The serving of drinks always attracts a fair amount of attention – both the price and the hassle. Interestingly women were far more interested and supported the idea of seat service relatively more than men, whilst men, were more focused on the price – probably because they normally pay whilst the ladies are queuing for the loo!

Lasers to attract the attention of disruptive audience members

Although one of the most popular solutions to the mobile phone problem is stewards on duty as auditorium monitors, the use of lasers to attract the attention of disruptive audience members was one of the least favoured technological advances – we obviously prefer a more public shaming!

Silent Snacks

Along with using lasers to attract the attention of noisy audience members, the idea of silent snacks was most enthusiastically greeted by men.  In-theatre catering arrangements have come a long way in recent years and, if you can’t get it in the theatre, some audience members will go out and get it at the shop next door and are allowed back in with their booty. Consequently the lines are blurred between what is and what is not acceptable.

Quiet snacks seem to go some way to easing the problem, but how quietly the snacks are offered around and how quietly they are chewed is a matter for the individual (who may well decide that they need to use the torch app on their phone to read the legend on the inside of the chocolate box!)

They are all daft

Try as we might to offer new and exciting ways to improve the theatre-going experience, some people just want a smile, a seat and a good show! So it is worth mentioning the 455 respondents who thought that all of our new ideas are daft!

New Ideas – in order of popularity

  1. At seat bar service
  2. Silent Snacks
  3. Downloadable theatre programme app
  4. Lasers to attract the attention of audience members

What can theatres do to improve their offering.

Of course the standard responses get an airing, every time anyone asks the question. The bar is expensive, the ladies loos too few, the seats are too uncomfortable and the other members of the audience are annoying!

But, with the best will in the world, even with the support of campaigns like the Spend A Penny campaign, these are not going to change drastically. Also there are contradictory demands: warmer theatres, colder theatres, more snacks, less snacks, drinking banned, drinking allowed,

What is interesting is the three suggestions that are well within the powers of almost all theatres.

  • Better signage
  • Better communication
  • Friendlier

And there are things that theatres are ALREADY doing:

  • Help for disabled patrons always comes in for praise;
  • Help when arriving late;
  • Free water during the intermission;
  • Keeping audiences updated with show information;
  • Offer interaction with the cast;
  • Be polite, friendly, pleasant, helpful, courteous, efficient, smiley…

The full list of ideas for theatres to improve their service (from audiences and theatres) is available – contact

Quote of the Survey: “We went to the Apollo Theatre – nothing special happened” (the ceiling of the Apollo Theatre famously collapsed during a performance of The Curious Incident Of The Dog in the Night-Time)

New Audiences Giving Theatres New Challenges

Theatre audiences are split into two main groups: those who are happy to be there and those for whom a trip to the theatre is out of their comfort zone and therefore need more help.

Can we succeed in maintaining a welcome for one without alienating the other? We must hope so.

But, as Sondheim’s Witch says in Into The Woods, “wishes come true, not free!”

Quote of the Survey: “We weren’t allowed to buy pints even in plastic glasses which was a bit awkward for the men.”

The Happiest Punters

Theatre Breaks’ 2016 Theatre Survey is not an exercise in finding fault but an opportunity to discover how theatres can improve their front of house product. But, where we have enough data, we can start to see some patterns emerging and it can give us an idea as to which theatres are currently offering the best and worst services.

So, it would be remiss of us not to give a friendly nod to the staff of the theatres that are already, demonstrably giving patrons a hale and hearty welcome.

So here is London’s most welcoming West End theatres.

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Image: Simon Harding
  1. Duchess Theatre
  2. Aldwych Theatre
  3. Harold Pinter Theatre
  4. Queens Theatre
  5. Lyceum Theatre
  6. Lyric Theatre
  7. Adelphi Theatre
  8. Prince Edward Theatre
  9. Palace Theatre
  10. New London Theatre
 Congratulations all!
Further information on the data collected by the Theatre Breaks  Theatre Survey is available by contacting Simon Harding at


The theatre survey was conducted over 2 months up to 01 December 2016.

It was hosted on the website and all data was taken online.

Participation of the website was rewarded with entry into a draw for a theatre break for 2

The survey was promoted through a variety of theatre, lifestyle and travel websites, email mailing lists and social media and was restricted to UK residents who consider themselves “theatregoers”.

The survey received 1757 responses.

About Simon Harding

Simon Harding has grown up in and around London's Theatreland and has been working here ever since he left school: promoting its shows to anyone who will listen!

View all posts by Simon Harding