After two very painful years, the world is slowly beginning to emerge from the worst ravages of the pandemic.
If Boris Johnson is to be believed (pause for laughter), he cured it a couple of months ago and everything is back to normal. That is only the case if you choose to ignore several million people who are currently still suffering from infection to varying degrees.
Theatre has been hit very hard and desperately needs to bounce back.
We are generally being given the impression that everything on stages up and down the country is running normally, although you don’t necessarily need to dig far beneath the surface to see that this is something of an illusion.
Last week, we reported on Lord Lloyd Webber’s decision to close Cinderella, which is the kind of show that might have thrived in normal times.
The Old Vic has also shown its hand by asking ticket-holders for cancelled show 4000 Miles to consider donating the cost of their tickets to the theatre, rather than asking for their money back.
There is far less fuss being made, but it appears that performances are still having to be cancelled and opening nights deferred due to the virus, while understudies may well be spending far more time in the limelight than ever before.
This is not a uniquely British phenomenon, as Broadway is also struggling. This is encapsulated by Mrs Doubtfire producer Kevin McCollum. To explain the show’s premature closure, he said, “even though New York City is getting stronger every day and ticket sales are slowly improving, theatre-going tourists and, especially for our show, family audiences have not returned as soon as we anticipated. Unfortunately, it isn't possible to run the show without those sales, especially when capitalizing with Broadway economics on three separate occasions.”
This would be enough of a problem on its own. However, it is now being accompanied by the kind of economic shock that only comes along once every few decades.
Inflation is running out of control to the extent that the Bank of England is predicting a rate of over 10% by the end of the year.
At the same time, those earning relatively low amounts, apparently right up to average national wage, are struggling to pay food and fuel bills, let alone splash out on luxuries like trips to the theatre.
Our beloved industry is not well placed to defend itself in such awkward times. At one end of the scale, we spend disproportionate amounts on salaries and energy costs, both of which are likely to be spiralling in the coming months.
At the other, much as we might like to imagine that our “customers” are devoted and will provide comfort by committing money long in advance, that has never been the case and now increasing numbers will be seeking to leave things until the last minute and then get deals on pricing. A return of tourists with money to spend would also help no end.
Even angels and corporates may be feeling the pinch and looking to cut back on unnecessary “luxuries”.
Insolvency specialists Begbies Trainor have recently issued a report warning of big opportunities for their own trade. While they do not present information on an industry-by-industry basis, the folks there are predicting that there will be a massive rise in insolvencies, judging by the number of businesses that have found themselves in court as a result of the inability (or unwillingness) to pay suppliers or landlords.
We have all seen the consequences of financial difficulties in the entertainment industry rehearsed numerous times of late.
The likelihood is that there will be less diversity, a smaller choice of shows and a concentration on safe productions which are likely to be commercially successful, i.e. long-running, big budget musicals where most of the costs are already sunk.
In the longer term, the oncoming recession may leave many of those at the bottom of the pile with little choice but to leave the industry forever, which in turn will reduce choice and diversity.
On the plus side, theatre has an uncanny knack of bouncing back from even the worst adversity and therefore we must all live in hope that shows will thrive and perhaps even the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe will be back with a vengeance.