It took less than 24 hours for last week’s column regarding the risks to theatres that had no insurance against the cancellation of performances at short notice to become prophetic.
In the face of apparent government encouragement, and quite possibly pressure, many theatres have felt obliged to spend meagre resources on staging live shows that were always likely both to lose money and close at practically zero notice. Many theatres must now be counting the cost as they prepare to send cash back to disappointed punters.
Had the government been willing to underwrite their efforts with an insurance policy, the story could have been very different but that doesn’t seem to be on the current political agenda. Instead, the whole country is now in a second lockdown, licking its wounds and desperate to find fresh and challenging kinds of entertainment, since the live variety has gone for a burton.
In the very short-term, we have found it in the form of America’s equivalent to a pantomime. It is a well-known fact that, for reasons which have never been clear, the US has never embraced this yuletide genre. Instead, it always seems that the majority of small theatres in the country wheel out adaptations of A Christmas Carol for the umpteenth time.
They might not realise it but events that are taking place in connection with their 'stolen' election seem to bear a closer resemblance to the plot for Dick Whittington. We have an inveterate baddie desperately trying to do an honest politician out of his birthright. Rather than becoming overly controversial, I leave readers to cast those two roles themselves.
By the time this column is published, (we must all hope) there might even have been a “turn again, Dick Whittington” moment when the losing candidate graciously admits defeat allowing his opponent to start ordering new curtains (or get the cleaners in to spruce up the old ones) for the White House.
In the midst of so much despair and anguish, the legislation relating to the new lockdown offers more hope than many thespian types might have expected. While they make it categorically clear that theatres cannot open to audiences for the next month, they do permit two activities that might spur on those in the industry.
At first sight, it appeared that pantos and other Christmas shows would probably no longer be a possibility, since there wouldn’t be a chance to rehearse or make theatres ready in advance of the end of the current lockdown on 2 December. However, the legislation does specifically permit theatrical rehearsal, meaning that theatres can potentially hit the ground running when restrictions are lifted. In reality, such a view may be overly optimistic, unless Nica Burns’s heartfelt plea for a couple of weeks’ notice ahead of projected reopening is fulfilled.
In this year more than any other, making arrangements to stage performances and also allow audience members to enter a safe environment will take a lot of planning and quite possibly rehearsal by front of house staff. The decision may also be clouded by the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s latest U-turn, extending furlough which will change the economic parameters for many theatres.
Swift reopening will also beg the questions about whether a typical party of a couple of grandparents and a number of small kids would want to go into town and visit even a socially-distanced theatre this December.
The other permissible activity that is allowed by the legislation is the use of theatres to put on performances that are recorded. This will be great news for the Old Vic but also might offer inspiration to some other theatre makers, who are happy to transform themselves into filmmakers in the short-term.
This article may seem to some to be clutching at straws but, given the current awful situation, that might be the best that most of us can hope for between now and the end of the year.