Anyone who read this column last week and thought that it was spreading doom and gloom should probably stay well away from an extremely well-written article by Sonia Friedman in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, entitled “Theatre stands on the brink of ruin“.
Miss Friedman’s headline will terrify any lover of the performing arts but her cogent arguments also need to persuade the powers that they need to rescue an infinitely valuable and irreplaceable resource.
This impassioned plea to the government was compounded by a similar message delivered on the Today programme by Vicky Featherstone of the Royal Court and Robert Hastie from Sheffield Theatres.
If Miss Friedman’s predictions are correct, and she is in a better place to understand the issues than most, unless a miracle occurs, by the end of the year over 1,000 theatres in the United Kingdom will be insolvent and 70% of performing arts companies gone forever.
As a result, the lives of those who buy 34,000,000 tickets every year will be diminished, while the education of our children will also suffer.
Although a handful of companies running London theatres should be flush with cash whatever happens, due to the overwhelming success of the likes of Lord Lloyd Webber and Sir Cameron Mackintosh over decades, without help prospects now look bleak for the vast majority.
For anyone who struggles to understand the macroeconomic aspect, the article brings it home much more clearly by suggesting that, if nothing is done and they cannot reopen (which seems like an odds-on bet), in the latter months of 2020 the Young Vic, Shakespeare’s Globe and the Old Vic will disappear one after another, having followed many regional theatres into extinction.
Even more shocking is the assertion that the National, the RSC, the Royal Opera House and Sadler’s Wells will all have gone too. Indeed, if this dire prognosis is correct then the 70% figure sounds overly optimistic.
It is easy to understand why the industry is in dire straits. If an organisation has no income and significant running costs then its business model is broken and the only question is how long its reserves will take to run out.
Indeed, the only sensible thing to do from a commercial perspective is to close down at the earliest opportunity in order to stop the losses and preserve any remaining reserves.
However, as all of us know, there is far more to a theatre company than the data provided in its profit and loss account.
As Sonia Friedman is at pains to emphasise, Britain benefits to the tune of billions of pounds a year as a result of having theatres. In addition to direct sales, much of this comes from tourism, although related enterprises also do very well, for example restaurants and pubs in the vicinity of theatres, not to mention local travel providers.
Then there is the cultural aspect. Britannia may not rule the waves any more, but she has a very long reach when it comes to exporting theatrical productions and expertise to countries that are deeply affected as a result. One has to hope that for the most part, this is mutually beneficial and therefore worth its weight in gold to the nation.
Very few readers will be old enough to remember the impact of the Second World War on the London theatre but overall, it seems to have been less damaging than the current predicament should coronavirus be allowed to take its natural course without any kind of intervention.
In this context, Sonia Friedman, surely echoing the views of the 34 million, believes that the state should provide financial assistance and not just as a charitable measure to save the jobs of those in the industry.
As she points out, this should also be a brilliant long term investment, since the only way that we will get the next generation of cultural icons, the likes of Phoebe Waller Bridge, Sam Mendes and Danny Boyle whose export value is immeasurable, is to keep as many theatres as possible afloat.
We can only hope that, at this difficult time, the powers that be see sense. Over to you Messrs Johnson, Sunak and Dowden.