The job of a theatre critic is to criticise but, believe it or not, this member of the fraternity would much rather heap praise on governmental efforts to ease the pain of the pandemic than denounce them.
There is no question that the precipitate action to introduce a furlough scheme has turned a major disaster into a minor one—for the moment. The question that has been on everybody in the theatre industry’s lips for the last six months has not been the usual one about the next show but the issue of survival.
Sonia Friedman has predicted that 70% of theatres will have to close by the end of the year, unless serious steps are taken to save them. To date, the bailout package plus other small contributions will do little to make a dent in that terrifying figure.
Now, having refused point-blank to extend the Job Retention Scheme for industries such as those in the cultural sector, hospitality and the poor end of sport, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak has announced his new Jobs Support Scheme. In brief, this provides a measure of financial assistance to those wishing to continue employing staff on a part-time basis.
However, that may not be much use for cash-strapped theatre companies. Put simply, if you want to employ someone for one-third of the time rather than making them redundant, you will be obliged to pay 55% of their wages. In effect, you are giving them a 67% pay rise in terms of work done, admittedly for operating during severely constricted hours.
At the other end of the equation, the worker will only receive 77% of normal pay. In many cases, this will not be enough to enable them to survive in their chosen profession, assuming that they can obtain alternative employment elsewhere (Tesco or Deliveroo?) at a fuller rate.
More encouragingly, some kind of additional support for the self-employed is promised, although detail was sadly lacking. From what one can gather, it may not be enough to keep many of those who have been struggling for six months already in this precarious industry.
These measures could also lead to the inevitable conclusion that the best economic route for many theatre companies will be to let permanent staff go and replace them in the short term with casual self-employed workers. The hope will then be that in a year or two, when the entertainment world has returned to a semblance of sanity, it will be possible to scope up and take on regular employees. In the meantime, survival will be very tough, despite a number of other measures that the Chancellor has introduced.
Given a situation where most theatres have no income and those that have decided to reopen are doing so in the knowledge that they will be losing money, taking on additional loans might not seem like a sensible way forward but that is the main thrust. The idea of making use of an option to extend certain government-backed loans to reduce payments will be more tempting but does mean that theatres which avail themselves of the opportunity will have a millstone around their necks until the 2030s?
The irony is that the one arrangement that might genuinely be of value is the six-month extension of the VAT reduction from 20% to 5% for those in specific industries. Unfortunately, as so many theatres will know all too well, if you don’t have any revenue, whether the VAT rate is 5%, 20% or 500% is purely academic.
Where does this leave us?
I fear that in many cases, the answer is “in trouble”. However, those in the theatre business tend to be very resourceful and one has to hope that they somehow manage to muddle through.
It would be greatly preferable if the government finally took one of its crown jewels seriously and provided the proper, dedicated support and funding that is so badly needed to ensure that decades of hard work are not eradicated in the space of less than one terrifying year.
Otherwise, mass redundancies and closures could be the order of the day in the very near future.