It may be helpful to start with a quick recap, attempting to get life into perspective.
Despite the scare stories from far-flung lands, the early days of 2020 promised much. The London theatre scene was vibrant with many exciting new productions promised for the summer season.
All of that changed almost literally overnight when, very belatedly, Boris Johnson decided that he would hint at the closure of theatres, not going as far as issuing an edict.
By that point, this critic had already caught the virus, along with hundreds of thousands of others. Had the country been protected more quickly, tens of thousands of lives would have been saved and the economy damaged to a far lesser degree. The same considerations applied to theatres, which could have been closed for a shorter period and recovered that much more quickly.
2020 became close to a write-off, while 2021 promised better but for the most part failed to deliver. It is only this year that theatres have begun to achieve an approximation to normality, though at considerable cost with many shows having to pull opening nights or cancel performances at the last minute as a result of outbreaks of the virus amongst cast and staff. Naturally, many visitors have also been wary, while the influx of super-rich tourists has been abated.
There were at least some seeds of hope, despite many announcements of closures, even affecting long-running hits. However, in an effort to cut costs that are insignificant when compared to the economic benefits, let alone the money wasted on fraudulent claims to pandemic support schemes and payments for personal protective equipment that didn’t work, the government and its henchmen at Arts Council England dealt what could be a death blow to many cultural institutions.
Following principles laid down by the somewhat discredited Johnson groupie, Nadine Dorries, many London arts organisations were slaughtered, while others are now on life support.
It is all very well to suggest that levelling up is a good idea and support artistic endeavours in the provinces. However, if this comes at the cost of destroying a number of Britain’s artistic crown jewels, heads should roll.
The English National Opera has effectively been closed down, while the Donmar, Hampstead and the Gate have rocky futures, unless individual angels are willing to save them. Many others have lost a significant proportion of their funding in real terms and will need to cut even more heavily, having already done so very painfully during the worst days of the pandemic.
As our editor is always keen to point out, the levelling up didn’t stretch as far as Oldham, where the Coliseum, like its namesake in London, has been robbed of all funding.
There must be method in the madness, but it will be hard to divine when managements are letting staff go with several including Hampstead, Watford Palace and Stockroom regretfully giving up on the full-time artistic director role.
It may take years or even decades for a full recovery, especially as COVID is rearing its ugly head again in the UK before any Chinese imports make matters worse, while prospective closures are far outnumbering openings for the first quarter of 2023. Add in rail strikes and spiralling energy prices and few of us will be sad to see the back of 2022.
Theatres are forced to cut their cloth to comply with financial constraints, plying the route of co-productions of 'safe' work and creating small-cast shows that will not break the bank. It is not so long ago that we were delighting in the efforts of the Monsterists, a movement formed with the specific intention of supporting large-scale, new writing productions that were invariably ambitions and frequently a joy to behold. One struggles to imagine how any theatre, even the National or the RSC, could conceive of following those principles in the next year or two.
If anything, the situation on Broadway and further afield in New York appears to be even less encouraging, with even the record-breaking run of Phantom of the Opera coming to an end, along with so much more. The upshot is likely to be a preponderance of low-key, small-scale work combined with old, relatively stale but popular musicals.
This will not only be damaging to the theatre sector but will hit film and TV in the longer term, since theatre is such a fertile breeding ground for those artforms. It will also damage the economy more widely, as those businesses that feed off theatre find their revenues diminishing or disappearing. That includes pubs and restaurants, hotels and any organisation that benefits from an influx of generally wealthy tourists.
On the other side of the equation, the redoubtable Nica Burns has just opened the glitzy new Soho Playhouse, while other theatres are also popping up across the capital and further afield.
In addition, the new conditions will inevitably bring to the fore some shows that might not otherwise have seen the light of day such as one of the year’s biggest highlights, Jodie Comer flying solo in Prima Facie.
Allowing for all of this, producers, directors and performers are almost always optimists and most will find a way to survive and maybe even thrive. It might just take them time to understand the new dynamics and work out the best way forward.
In that spirit, next week’s column heralding a new year will be entitled “Reasons to be cheerful”.