Sunderland Empire booms as record-breaking crowds flock in

editorial image
Have your say

ALMOST one in 10 Wearsiders have been to see a show at the Empire in the past year as the landmark theatre celebrates a record-breaking 12 months.

West End productions, including Dirty Dancing, War Horse, Lion King, Jersey Boys and Wicked, coming to the theatre have caused a massive spike in sales, while also drawing new audiences to the High Street West venue.

Though the theatre is only just into the new financial year, it’s looking set to double its revenue thanks to a string of high-calibre shows which have had strong sales months ahead of the shows hitting the stage.

New figures obtained by the Echo show that 27 per cent of the theatre’s sales in the last financial year were to people living in an SR postcode, reaching 9.2 per cent of the population.

Thirty one per cent of sales were to those living in a NE postcode, reaching 2.5 per cent of its population.

Since the installation of a controversial fly tower in 2005, which many claimed was an eyesore, success has snowballed at the theatre as it’s allowed it to stage bigger and better shows.

General manager Ben Phillips said: “Once you would have been happy just to have one big show a season, but we have four this year, starting with War Horse next week. What’s really made a difference is that the West End has changed. Once the producers weren’t happy to have a touring version of the show running at the same time as a plumbed in version in the West End, but they do that now.

“I think when we gave ourselves the tag line of the ‘West End of the North’ it was very ambitious, but we have lived up to that now. These are West End shows.”

He added: “A big turning point for us was Dirty Dancing in 2012, which broke records. Fifty one per cent of the audience who came to that show had never been to the Empire before, they came from far and wide, but also new audiences locally as well.”

The success of Dirty Dancing helped pave the way for Wicked to make its North East debut at the theatre next spring. The shows have the same general managers who were impressed with the facilities and sales at the Empire.

Ben formerly managed the Apollo Victoria Theatre, Wicked’s West End home, and was passionate about bringing it to Sunderland and helping the theatre to realise its potential.

“Lion King, in particular, had been mooted for years,” Ben added. “But once Disney saw the upturn in sales they figured that coming to Sunderland was worth the risk and it’s a risk that’s paid off as it’s selling amazingly well.”

Despite there being an economic downturn last year, the Empire increased its revenue by 27 per cent – but those figures don’t take into account War Horse, which has been its biggest grossing show so far, with tickets still to sell.

Ben says Sunderland can look forward to the trend of having big names shows on its doorstep continuing.

“We have shows coming in on the back of Wicked, which we can’t announce yet, that are up there, and long may that continue,” he said. “We are hoping for Billy Elliott, that’s the dream, it’s THE show for the area. We will have a battle on our hands getting it, but it’s a battle worth having.”