At long last, theatres will be permitted to reopen on Monday. Even for those who wish to wait a little longer until they venture out, this must present a ray of hope. More cheering news comes with the announcement that Trafalgar Entertainment is part of a £1.3 billion regeneration of London’s Olympia, which will include a 1,575 seat theatre.
There is no obvious rationale behind the schedule for reopening. Some theatres have gone hell for leather, literally welcoming audiences in three days’ time. Others are being a little more patient with plans to start up later in May.
Decisions to welcome 50% audiences in the knowledge that this will lead to further financial loss are brave, if not foolhardy. That explains why far more theatres and particularly those in the West End presenting big budget extravaganzas are holding off rather longer. Most of the announcements in this category contain plans to get up and running in June or July. That is on the basis that, if everything goes to plan, the likes of Cinderella and Hamilton will be thrilling full houses through the second half of 2021 and beyond. However, with one of the Indian variants of COVID-19 beginning to increase its prevalence in the UK at pace, the best-laid plans appear to be under threat already.
You might imagine that, having faced over a year of agony, producers would have broad smiles on their faces. However, judging by an article written by Charlotte Higgins for The Guardian earlier in the week, trouble is brewing or, to be more accurate, has brewed. Those who follow economic and trading trends will be aware that rather than failing during recessions, the most common time for businesses to discover that they are insolvent is at the beginning of an upturn. That must be deeply worrying for the millions who are still on furlough, desperately hoping that the employers for whom they haven’t worked in months if not years will welcome them back with open arms and buoyant bank balances in the coming months.
Perhaps the most shocking information that Charlotte Higgins teased out related to Lord Lloyd Webber and his business empire. Most of us would assume that if anyone could withstand a year of dark theatres, it would be his Lordship. After all, he has been in the business for 50 years, is canny and has a back catalogue of musicals, films and recordings that is second to none. The royalties must be phenomenal, but even they cannot withstand the pressure. His theatre portfolio has apparently lost approximately £1 million each month with dire consequences.
Strangely, it appears that LW Theatres has received no grants or loans from the government’s Culture Recovery Fund to help tide them over. Instead, Lord Lloyd Webber has been forced to remortgage his home and is planning to sell one of his seven London theatres in order to keep the group’s finances afloat. This does seem quite unbelievable and there may well be other factors bubbling below the surface. Even so, if one of our great theatrical grandees is struggling, then one can only imagine the dire financial position of many lesser lights.
It is astonishing that almost no theatres have gone under in the last year and one must worry about whether some might discover that they are no longer viable when the lights turn on and the bills start rushing in. If nothing else, government support is unlikely to last for much longer, which means that theatres will need to finance themselves once again. Working with 50% audiences with no coronavirus cancellation insurance, that will be an impossibility. Some theatres could be mothballed and others forced to borrow money that they can never repay.
In many cases, we should expect further cuts, cheaper productions and higher ticket prices, none of which bodes well for freelancers. The alternative could be curtains.
Having said all of that, those theatres that have watched and waited, marshalling their resources carefully, might not be opening in the next month or two but should be well placed to thrive once we have finally seen the back of this pernicious virus.