A week is a long time when a pandemic is out of control. While the Prime Minister remains in denial, encouraging the nation to party like its 1999, theatres are in big trouble and need immediate help.
Normally it would be a source of considerable pride to point out that where British Theatre Guide goes others follow. However, as regular readers will recall, last week’s column seemed filled with doom and gloom having identified no fewer than four shows forcibly closed by the pandemic with fears for worse to follow.
It gives this writer no pleasure to observe that, to take one example, The Guardian has published half a dozen articles in the last few days noting the predicted disaster from different angles, not to mention a podcast. The best analysis though arrived in a press release issued yesterday by the National Theatre’s Artistic Director Rufus Norris, who managed to encapsulate the concerns of the industry perfectly.
“Following a cascade of COVID cases within our performing companies, we sadly have to cancel further performances of both Hex and Curious Incident until the 28th and 29th December respectively.
“As the Omicron variant rapidly works its way into the population, theatres everywhere are faced once again with tough and urgent decisions, despite the rigorous regimes in place, in order to keep their companies and staff safe. After the devastating impact of the last 20 months, we are again faced with a challenge to our resolve and businesses. I’m sure we are united in our regret at the impact this will have on the audiences we exist to serve, as well as our commitment to supporting each other through this latest phase of the virus. We have all proved to be immensely resilient of late, and I have no doubt that we will, when the current crisis passes, bounce back with vigour and creativity to keep live theatre at the centre of this country’s culture. We look forward to welcoming everyone back as soon as we are possibly able.”
If the country’s pride and joy, a National Theatre for which we waited the best part of a century, is in the kind of bind that could mean even more lay-offs and without government support far worse, then what hope for lesser theatres?
According to media reports, around a dozen have been dark due to the virus in recent days and, as Sir Nicholas Hytner so cogently observed, this is the time of year when most theatres expect to make a significant proportion of their annual revenue.
It isn’t just the theatres that suffer but all of those who rely on them for work. That is not just actors and directors but front of house staff, many self-employed contractors not to mention secondary industries such as hospitality venues who (used to) sell food and drinks before and after shows to happy theatregoers.
If the latest estimate of between three and five for the ‘R’ number is accurate, then regardless of the Prime Minister’s positive spin, increasing numbers of theatres will be forced to close as staff members catch the virus or come into close contact with those that have.
Whether we get a formal lockdown or not, from the point of view of those in the entertainment industry, that is going to be the result of a combination of illness and fear. Indeed, the latter could be just as serious commercially since large numbers of potential audience members will wisely decide that sitting in the company of hundreds of strangers, even if they are obliged to wear masks, is not the best idea when there is every chance that by the time you read this article, 100,000 people a day will be falling ill with Christmas a week away.
There could also be a much longer-term fallout, since tourists who have booked tickets for travel to London and then had them cancelled at the last minute or discovered that, in order to enjoy the experience, they will be obliged to take expensive tests, potentially isolate and, in extreme cases, spend 10 nights locked in an overpriced hotel might think twice about visiting our shores and theatres in the foreseeable future.
12 months ago, things seemed as bad as they could get but, to give the government credit, it provided at least limited financial support via the Culture Recovery Fund, as well as rates and VAT reliefs plus furlough, loans and support for some of the self-employed. Now, there is a small discretionary pot in the hands of the Arts Council and that’s it. If nothing more is done by a Chancellor of the Exchequer who seems inspired by Wackford Squeers and Scrooge rather than Oliver Twist or Bob Cratchit, the latest iteration of the virus could spell curtains for many theatres.
Some might argue even that there is a moral duty here since, by taking far fewer steps to protect its citizens than most civilised administrations around the globe, this government has once again assumed a world-beating position when it comes to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.
Theatre means different things to different people but it can be a fantastic form of escapism. We all desperately need to escape from the terrors of the pandemic but whether theatres will be open in coming weeks and months and punters willing to visit is quite another matter.
Every week, when sitting down to write this column, this critic has been desperate to report good news and bring smiles to the faces of readers but that is a big ask at the moment. Maybe next week?