Edinburgh Playhouse: Boss of Scotland’s biggest theatre on why ticket sales, and violent and disruptive incidents are soaring above pre-Covid levels
He is heading to the Highlands after a rollercoaster five-and-a half years at the helm of Scotland’s biggest theatre.
Edinburgh Playhouse director Colin Marr has had to grapple with daily road and tramworks outside the venue’s front door, an 18-month Covid-enforced closure and a surge in anti-social behaviour incidents.
But he has also overseen a remarkable renaissance in the number of customers coming through the doors and booking shows in advance since the venue emerged from the shadows of the pandemic.
As he brought the curtain down on his time at the venue for a new job in the business world, Marr revealed the Playhouse is now selling around 50 per cent more tickets for its biggest shows than it did before the pandemic.
After fearing a slow return of audiences when the venue was finally able to reopen in the autumn of 2021, Marr has instead seen ticket sales soar, even for some shows a year away.
Almost a million customers have come through the doors of the Playhouse since then, he revealed. And unprecedented demand for blockbusters like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Six and Wicked has fuelled the post-pandemic bounce.
Marr said: “When we came out of the pandemic, we were quite worried as we didn’t know if our audiences would come back. We were probably a bit cautious in our budgets. We imagined things would be down a bit, but didn’t really have a clue what was going to happen. What we’ve found is an absolutely huge appetite to come to the Playhouse.
“Shows which are here reasonably often, once every fix or six years, are doing 50 per cent more business than they’ve ever done before.
"We’re an absolutely massive venue, with 3,039 seats. We’d normally expect shows like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Annie to come in at around 60 or 65 per cent occupancy, but both came in at more than 90 per cent.
“We’d expect the big Disney shows to do 86 or 87 per cent occupancy, but we’re seeing people fighting for the last tickets. Six was completely sold out eight weeks in advance.
“Wicked is here at Christmas, but the way it’s going I can see it selling out by September, which is just unheard of. The Wizard of Oz, which is here next year, also looks as if it will sell out and Pretty Woman, which is a year away, is doing phenomenal business.”
Marr attributes the ticket sales surge to a combination of a post-pandemic pent-up demand for an “upbeat and feelgood” night out and a desire to experience a favourite show again.
He said: "People just hated not being able to go out – they felt like they were locked up or caged or whatever. I think the pandemic is still a factor in what we’re seeing. I don’t know if hedonistic is the right word, but I think people are looking for a big night out.
“They’re basically going ‘I will spend money on tickets, but I’m going to go for something I know’. People want upbeat and feel-good at the moment.
"They’ve come out of Covid and we have a cost-of-living crisis now. They don’t want anything massively serious. They want to know they’re going to have a pile of fun.”
Marr’s biggest headache since the Playhouse reopened was a significant rise in the number of customers ejected for disruptive, abusive and violent behaviour – a problem he insists is not unique to the venue.
He said: “I’ve had people contact me from all over the world to tell me it’s exactly the same. Whatever it is, it’s absolutely not an Edinburgh thing, Scottish thing or UK thing. The problems tend to be when audience members have different expectations from each other, and someone is either talking, on their phone or singing, and they’re asked to stop.
“Most people will just go ‘of course, yeah, I’m really sorry, I didn’t realise’. But some people have just lost it. Some of the responses have been completely over the top and unacceptable.
"With a show that has that kind of incident, we’d now probably expect two or three relatively serious ones a week and have to ask around two or three people to leave every night. It’s probably twice as bad as it was pre-Covid.
"They are never young people. The classic thing they say is ‘I don’t care about anyone else. I’ve paid for my ticket. I’m here to enjoy myself’. I don’t really know what’s behind it. It might be something to do with the pandemic. That response of ‘I don’t care about anyone else’ feels like a kind of pandemic response."
Marr, who led Eden Court Theatre in Inverness for 20 years before running the Playhouse, is returning north to lead the chamber of commerce in the city, where his wife Nicky is a leading broadcaster and presenter.
He said: “For the last five-and-a-half years, one of us has been travelling every weekend, and we’ve only been able to see each other two or three nights a week. We just decided to stop doing that, start living together full-time again and make things a bit simpler.”
As Marr departs Edinburgh’s cultural scene, he expects the Playhouse to get even busier when it reopens in August after the latest phase of a refurbishment worth more than £10 million in the space of a decade. There will be a direct tram link to the city’s waterfront by then, as well as the booming St James Quarter on its doorstep.
“I’m definitely going to miss the Playhouse as it’s going so well at the moment,” he said. “Compared to five-and-a-half years ago, we’re getting bigger and better shows, and we’re getting bigger audiences.
“Edinburgh has more theatre seats per capita than anywhere else in the UK, so it’s always a competitive marketplace. Between us all, it’s so important for Edinburgh to keep getting those huge shows to keep the audiences coming in.”