British theatres continue to soldier on hopefully, adopting differing approaches to commercial and artistic recovery.
By way of contrast, Broadway is just preparing to re-open for the first time and will be facing exactly the same challenges but after an interregnum that has lasted very close to 18 months.
It seems safe to say that nobody knows what lies ahead over the next few months. In the best of all possible worlds, coronavirus will cease to be a factor this autumn and never return. That kind of optimism may have worked for characters conjured up by Voltaire, but it seems unlikely that many who have endured the pandemic so far would bet their houses or even threadbare shirts on this as a likely outcome.
As last week’s column pondered, despite the fact that so many of us would love to occupy theatre seats on a regular basis, the return has been somewhat slower than many would have hoped. The hesitancy has been driven by uncertainty about late cancellations, health issues and possibly also some of the current offerings, which can look like fillers rather than bankers.
At the other end of the equation, theatre managers must be tearing their hair out over their own uncertainties. Will shows have to be derailed at the last minute, performances cancelled or tickets refunded to individuals who decide, whether for good reasons or otherwise, to pull out on the day?
The impression one gets is that tickets are not selling fantastically, which has certainly been consolidated by information from the Edinburgh Fringe. Indeed, the man running its sister Book Festival has suggested that the return to normality might take until the end of the decade, which is a terrifying prospect.
In the meantime, the accountants are more likely to hold sway than the arty types at a time when reserves have been run down, hardly helped by a government (and appointed Minister) that seems to regard the arts as having no value at all, unlike their favourite cultural pursuit, football.
In simple terms, we are back to Micawber principles where adventure must give way to cost-cutting and desperate attempts to turn a profit, even if it is only the inflation-adjusted equivalent to that venerable gentleman’s sixpence.
For some reason, another pertinent issue has yet to be highlighted. Long ago, theatres were doing everything in their power to avoid having to give money back to patrons who had purchased tickets in good faith but then seen shows cancelled. The most common strategy was to offer a credit against future tickets or the opportunity to book the show for a later date, at the time undefined for very obvious reasons. If this critic’s straw poll of friends and family is anything to go by, many now have very healthy investments at theatres across London.
That was a life-saver for some venues at the time, but now the chickens must come home to roost. Taking Hamilton as an example, on the basis that it probably had the best advance sales of any show in London, producers might have a serious problem. If the producers had taken, let us say, nine months of advance bookings, then without going into too many practicalities, they will not start earning money from the show for nine months after re-opening.
Regrettably, they will still incur all of the usual running costs, almost certainly enhanced and expanded by the need to make the theatre as safe from COVID as possible, requiring extra ventilation and additional staff members.
Ironically, this means that what should be the most successful productions in town on paper may actually have the worst commercial position.
We continue to live in interesting times, and boy do we wish that we didn’t.