The pandemic and the government’s reaction to it has all the makings of a second-rate pantomime. There is always a great deal of bluster, considerable repetition and the feeling that everybody but the man on the stage can see what is “behind you!” Then we get Freedom Day—“Oh no it isn’t”.
We are all heartily sick of this sickness and almost everyone understands the need to balance protecting the community’s health and its finances. With the eager assistance of the media, the public was lured into the false belief that Freedom Day was going to be Freedom Day. In fact, it is not even Probation Day.
We know with certainty that the next stage of lifting restrictions will not take place for another month, but surely having been bitten for the umpteenth time, most theatre producers will be shy of assuming that they will be able to open up fully on 19 July.
There has been a some almost hysterical reaction following the inevitable delay to reopening, suggesting that, as a direct consequence of a four-week delay, vast numbers of businesses in the leisure and entertainment sector will be forced to close forever.
There is no doubt that some companies, including those working in and around the theatre industry, will never reopen. However, considered realistically, almost all of those are already in serious trouble and an extra four weeks with limited income and some governmental financial support was unlikely to make that much difference.
Four public statements in the last week provided a comprehensive snapshot of the consequences for theatre companies.
Last week’s column recognised and attempted to spot weaknesses in suggestions by Lord Lloyd Webber that he would open Cinderella at full capacity next week and was fully expecting to be prosecuted and imprisoned as a result.
Regardless of the hyperbole, the presence of its figurehead in a penal institution is unlikely to benefit his Lordship’s business empire and, for that reason if no other, he might wish to eat humble pie and either delay the opening for at least a month or progress following social distancing guidelines in line with every other theatre in the country.
The Prince of Egypt
The latter approach is exactly what the producers of The Prince of Egypt have reluctantly chosen to follow.
Despite having to finance a company of 154 (excluding front of house staff) at the gigantic Dominion Theatre, those behind the project have accepted the inevitable and announced that performances from 1 July to 4 September will operate with socially distanced audiences.
In a spirit of optimism, they have also confirmed that if “all current restrictions were lifted earlier, the production will revert to full capacity as soon as practicably possible.”
This seems a mature approach and reflects a well-funded project that is planning for the long term, while accepting short-term pain along the way.
Witness for the Prosecution
Close to the other end of the scale, a heartfelt press release has been issued by the producers of Witness for the Prosecution, which had been due to reopen at London’s County Hall.
Instead of risking bankruptcy and the jobs of everyone relying on the production to rescue sorely afflicted bank balances, they had already taken a relatively cautious approach by announcing a reopening date of 3 August rather than rushing in immediately after the imaginary Freedom Day at the end of June like so many others.
Once again, they are to be commended for their maturity in taking a decision to put the production on hold. This must have been painful but inevitable, especially given the government’s continued unwillingness to support the entertainment sector by providing COVID cancellation insurance, as reiterated by Financial Secretary to the Treasury Jesse Norman on the Today Programme yesterday.
This is what eloquent producers Eleanor Lloyd and Rebecca Stafford had to say.
"We are absolutely gutted that we have to delay the re-opening of Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution at London County Hall until 14 September.
Unfortunately, the combined effects of continued uncertainty around a return to full capacity in theatres, no provision of cancellation insurance and the delayed delivery of our promised Cultural Recovery Fund grant are such that we cannot afford to proceed with the rehearsals as planned. We have not taken this decision lightly. It leaves 51 people waiting to resume their jobs. For us as producers, the cost of remaining closed is significant and will increase as furlough and business rates relief are reduced from July.
We are sorry for our wonderful and loyal audience who stood ready to support our return in August. We urge you, please re-book into the new dates from 14 September and come and celebrate with us as soon as we are able to declare ’THE COURT IS NOW (RE)OPEN’. "
At the Curve in Leicester, the creative team has been obliged to take even more drastic action stating:
“Following Monday’s Government announcement on the extension of the roadmap, we have made the difficult decision to postpone our Made at Curve concert production of Jonathan Larson’s Rent. Although it’s hoped we will be able to operate at full capacity by August, with such uncertainty we do not feel it’s in the best interests for the theatre to take the risk of committing finances and resources predicated on a date that may change.”
There are going to be tough times ahead for almost everyone working in theatre. Uncertainty reigns and it is disturbing to learn that payments from the boastful Government’s “emergency” Cultural Recovery Fund are still outstanding after 15 months of pandemic.
Many freelancers and some producers will already have accepted the inevitable and moved on to pastures new, but for so many, the love of stage is everything and they will continue to make great sacrifices.
While everyone is getting increasingly impatient, in order to protect the industry and their own prospects for a long-term, prosperous future, this is the time for all to think clearly, make cautious decisions and hope that by the latter part of 2021, we are back to full throttle.