One wonders how many theatre aficionados had the pleasure of listening to the thoughts of the redoubtable Nica Burns on Radio 4’s Today programme earlier this week.
Probably very few, as not too many theatre types can be expected to listen to the business news at 6:15 in the morning on the off chance that it will feature something of interest to them.
Bubbly Nica was as irrepressible as ever, explaining that all of her theatres will be opening as soon as possible, although with shows commissioned to minimise costs and therefore overruns. She admitted that, with 50% capacity, each will make a loss but suggested that they would at least make a contribution to costs, thus justifying the exercise.
As always, she also reminded listeners that, in addition to entertaining the public, these productions will offer much-needed employment to self-employed workers, far too many of whom have not received a penny in income over the last 12 months. Her announcement was joined by a welter of others, as many theatre-makers are clearly desperate to open their doors, regardless of the financial risk involved. One wonders the extent to which the government’s reopening fund announced in the Budget will be helping to underpin many of these projects.
As this article is being written, the first hiccup in the vaccination rollout has arrived. This means that far fewer people will have received one vaccination, let alone two, by the proposed mid-June date when we will all be free, although the eternally U-turning optimist Boris Johnson claims that we are still on target. Time will tell.
The delay does mean that theatres will be less safe than would otherwise have been the case, since larger numbers of habitués will still not be fully vaccinated. Even then, there is still no concrete data about exactly what being vaccinated achieves in terms of protection and transmission.
The biggest concern for Nica Burns and every other producer remains the same. If there is a downturn in fortunes represented by an increase in infection rates, theatres could open and close in a short period of time, as happened in December and, to a lesser degree, last summer. This is clearly disastrous for theatres, their workers and theatregoers, each of whom has to live with uncertainty and might find their plans derailed at the last minute.
While it would not necessarily help theatregoers to any great degree, the plea that Ms Burns made a year ago for the government to provide insurance for all theatres against closures as a result of the pandemic is still falling on deaf ears. Very reasonably, the insurance underwriting industry does not want anything to do with such a plan, since the only way that it could reasonably offer such cover would be to charge close to 100% premiums, which defeats the object.
If Boris Johnson and his cabinet really believe in what they are saying, i.e. that the country can open up safely from June, then underwriting all theatrical productions against this risk would cost the government nothing but provide much-needed security to an ailing industry.
On that basis, it is surely time for him to put his money where his mouth is and institute an insurance scheme with immediate effect.
Don’t hold your breath.