On the advent of the COVID pandemic, when theatres were first given a strong hint that closure might be desirable and then more formally ordered to cease operations, Sonia Friedman predicted that unless there was strong financial support, 70% of UK theatres might disappear. Thankfully, almost all have survived so far, driven by the eternal optimism of producers and very welcome but limited help from the government and Arts Council England.
However, just when there might have been hope that the worst was behind us, Above the Stag Theatre in Vauxhall has closed its doors, apparently without prior notice. According to the company’s web site, the primary forces that led to this decision were an inability to come up with a viable business plan at the existing venue and the possibility that the building may not comply with safety regulations.
Rather than moving elsewhere, the management team has decided to mothball all of its equipment in the hope of resurrection in the not-too-distant future. As such, it is now beginning to look for a new venue and funding to recommence operations.
Until the shocking news emerged, Above the Stag had seemed to be a success story. Over the past five years, it established itself as “UK’s only exclusively LGBT+ Theatre”, a claim that one or two others may question.
The quality of its programming was clearly high, and BTG reviewers frequently put visits to ATS above those to many other venues of similar size and status. In addition, it had become home to a sequence of incredibly popular, risqué gay pantomimes for adults. On that front, there is scope for genuine optimism, since the panto producers have already set up a fledgling company wittily named, He’s Behind You Limited.
The big question is whether the (temporary) demise of one of London’s more vibrant fringe theatres is a one-off or the start of a worrying trend. While the media concentrates on the cost-of-living crisis as it impacts individuals, that masks the dreadful consequences for those running businesses large and especially small.
The rates holidays offered during the pandemic are now winding down, while theatres inevitably suffer greatly from increases in energy bills, arguably more even than the rest of us. Those that tour will have to pay inflated prices for fuel, while they face the same conundrum as any other business when trying to determine a fair rate to pay workers both on stage and behind-the-scenes.
This must be exercising Equity at the moment, as on the one hand they would wish to see fair rates for everyone working in the theatre, while the powers that be must also try to ensure that they do not either bankrupt producers or dissuade them from putting on what might have been marginal productions.
Overall, as theatres reopen, there must be greater optimism for the future of the industry, but it is unlikely that either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak will be providing additional funding for the arts in the foreseeable future. Indeed, this pair of 21st-century puritans are more likely to cut back on something that goes against the grain of their mutual exclusively, profit-driven ethos.