The future of the London stage is currently threatened with impending doom, thanks to the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic.

As regular readers of this column will be well aware, the government has offered what it believes to be a very generous bailout of £1.57 billion to the arts, although this writer has expressed doubt about whether the payments will go very far. Indeed, there is no guarantee that even a penny of this money will go to the theatre.

Following recent precedent, having announced a random number, the ministers involved, Rishi Sunak for the Treasury and Oliver Dowden for the Department of Culture, have gone very quiet. What one might reasonably have expected is a fully thought-through and costed plan ahead of the announcement of a budget.

As anyone who has ever tried to finance a theatre company or any other business will understand, in order to do so successfully, you need to have a full knowledge of each of the parts that make up the whole.

To take a parallel closer to home, if you wanted to put on a production of, let us say, Hamilton, it would be imperative to establish the cost of obtaining the rights, the cost of hiring a theatre, the cost of a full creative team including actors and understudies and such other basics as insurance, cleaning, PR and marketing. Nobody in their right mind would say, “I have £100,000, let’s do Hamilton” and then expect anything but a disaster as either the money ran out before opening or a director or producer threw money around with gay abandon in the early stages except where it was most needed, leaving nothing to pay for the set or costumes.

As every week passes, more theatres that have already reached the brink will close, while redundancies are being announced on what feels like a daily basis. That is without even considering the parlous plight of the self-employed, who make up so much of this creative industry and are receiving little or no financial support from the state or anywhere else.

That is the context in which theatres are now trying to keep their heads above water and it makes three recent announcements of theatre openings even more of a mystery than might otherwise have been the case.

Ignoring more mundane consideration such as commerciality, at least two of these announcements were proposing a run that seemed like it would breach the legislation as it stood at that time. The producers of The Mousetrap have announced their determination to reopen the play in October, in the full knowledge that they expect to lose money at every performance.

Before that, the Donmar Warehouse is putting on a staged audio adaptation of José Saramago’s novel Blindness starring Juliet Stevenson and the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park is to stage a concert version of Jesus Christ Superstar for six weeks to mid-August. In each case, they are opening in the full knowledge that social distancing means a full house of only about 30% of normal capacity.

Unless the theatre industry has been lying to us all for decades, it is hard to make money at 60% of capacity, while most shows would close long before they fell to the 30% point, even allowing for the fact that they would have sunk costs and therefore would be comparing income with weekly running expenses.

In the current economic climate, prima facie it appears reckless for theatres that are already in a worrying financial state and might well be discussing imminent redundancies to take on projects that are guaranteed to soak up even more of their dwindling resources.

The positive aspect of this story is that a number of workers in the industry will get employment for a few weeks or months that could literally stave off the loss of their homes and conceivably even put some decent food into their mouths for the first time in ages. Beyond that, the opening of theatres, whether indoors or outside, while social distancing continues does not make any obvious commercial sense.

It would be great if somebody could explain the rationale behind these decisions. The most obvious explanation might be either that the government has secretly informed them that it is willing to fund any losses or, alternatively, they are underwritten by some generous benefactor from the private sector.

Just as this article was about to be published, the Prime Minister announced further relaxations. With effect from 1 August, as reported on the BBC web site, “the government has also now outlined measures to 'support the safe return of audiences', including:

  • Reduced venue capacity and limited ticket sales to ensure social distancing can be maintained
  • Tickets should be bought online and venues encouraged to use e-tickets to reduce contact and help with track and trace
  • Venues should have clearly communicated social distancing marking in place in areas where queues form and adopt a limited entry approach
  • Increased deep cleaning of auditoriums
  • Performances should be scheduled to allow sufficient time to undertake deep cleaning before the next audience arrives
  • Performers, conductors and musicians must observe social distancing wherever possible”.

As so often, this raises as many questions as it answers and, in particular, the final point about performers, conductors and musicians observing social distancing “wherever possible” might leave many producers scratching their heads.

While in theory these changes will permit performances of the type envisaged at the Donmar Warehouse and St Martin’s Theatre, they will undoubtedly mean that theatres have to incur significant costs before opening and during runs so do not address the financial black hole that these productions are bound to create or exacerbate.