We have all become used to false dawns in connection with the pandemic. Therefore, perhaps this critic was a little naïve in assuming that everything was hunky-dory now because there had been far less publicity about cancellations and closures of shows in the first half of February.
Sadly, what was probably the hottest ticket at the Donmar Warehouse since Charles Spencer immortally described Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room as “pure theatrical Viagra”, the kind of statement that would now have got him into hot water and possibly premature unemployment, has lost its opening night to COVID.
There are clearly differences between Miss Kidman and Kit Harington, who was due to make his debut as Henry V at the Donmar next week, but what they have in common is crowd appeal.
This means that there will have been lines of optimistic fans stretching down the streets of Covent Garden for hours each day, waiting in hope that a ticket might be returned. The grey market has probably also been doing roaring business.
Sadly, this was all to no avail since our critic discovered at the last minute that the opening night has been postponed for a couple of weeks as a result of coronavirus.
This will cause chaos for the producers and cost the Donmar a great deal of money that it probably cannot afford. It will also mean that far fewer Harington groupies will get to see the Game of Thrones star in the flesh.
This begs the question about how theatres, those working in the industry and punters will react going forward once the Prime Minister’s proposal to give up on all semblance of a policy regarding the virus is put into place, which is currently scheduled for next week.
After two years of pain and financial misfortune, everybody reading this article will understand how desperately theatres need to attract audiences, make money and return to a semblance of normality.
Therefore, while they have bravely accepted the need to close down at almost no notice whenever a cast or crew member has tested positive for coronavirus, that may not be the case in future.
Inevitably, there are some who will be tempted to plough on regardless, following the dangerous example of a Prime Minister who is in denial, not only about his attendance record at parties but also the potential risks of a virus that has already killed over 175,000 of his flock.
Who knows, perhaps they will get away with it, in which case the business managers are going to be very happy, even if some of those connected to shows might have their nerves tested to the limit.
There is another strong motivating factor. If you know that your theatre will run out of money unless the pantomime sells at 80% occupancy throughout its run, the temptation to stay open may be too much. That is particularly going to be the case, given the fact that neither furlough nor any other kind of state-funded support is available.
The situation has hardly been helped by the government’s refusal to implement an effective insurance policy to protect those in the sector from such a temptation. Instead, it has rather cynically introduced a scheme that appears designed solely to support insurers rather those in the cultural sector.
Actors and Crew
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if theatres feel threatened then those working in the industry are at even greater risk.
The general assumption is that 95% of actors are unemployed at any time. The situation for support staff isn’t going to be much better.
Therefore, if you aren’t feeling too well, an obvious first step is to avoid taking any kind of coronavirus test rather than risk your livelihood.
This goes far beyond the entertainment industry, as recent figures for positive test results demonstrate.
While the ONS showed figures for the sick remaining steady at around 3 million, the number registering positive tests halved, suggesting that this statistic is long past its sell-by date.
The consequences of turning up for work with a large group of colleagues while ill could literally be fatal. If nothing else, since the Omicron variant is so transmissible, one sick person on a Monday could easily translate into the majority by the weekend.
The potential audience for any major show has been reduced significantly due to the absence of tourists. While legislation is now more benign in this country, it seems unlikely that large numbers of overseas visitors will return to the United Kingdom in the short term.
That leaves you and me, the locals. Theatres are having a tough time in persuading us that travelling on public transport and then spending two or three hours in the company of hundreds of other people is a good idea.
Once the new normal comes into effect and there is every chance that some of those people might be sick, while few if any will be wearing masks, the risk factors may be overwhelming for large numbers of potential theatregoers.
Another point that every theatre will need to consider is its returns and cancellation policy. If they do not offer a full refund to anyone who needs to cancel, even at the last minute, because they believe that they or a member of their party might be suffering from the virus, then it will be hard to sell tickets.
On the other hand, if they abandon such a policy, then they may sell even fewer tickets and, at best, advance sales will drop close to zero leaving them to rely on last-minute walk-ins. That is not the way to run a business and can only increase already astronomical stress levels.
Then again, perhaps Boris Johnson is a wizard and after next week nobody will suffer from or even remember the dreaded words COVID-19.