In a past life, that now seems far more than 1¾ years ago, the arts sector was filled with born optimists, certain that they were just about to be cast in the next Spielberg blockbuster, sell the rights to their new musical to Cameron Mackintosh or at least get a bit part in a West End show bound to run till the end of the year. Sadly, nowadays the best we can hope for is uncertainty since the alternative is inevitable disappointment.
As this article is being written, we learned that the Omicron variant of coronavirus is present in the United Kingdom but scientists had yet to determine the likely consequences. Those who like stressing the positives suggest that it might do very little serious harm, causing few hospitalisations and almost no deaths. The experts already seem to have concluded that the rate of infection is doubling every 2 to 3 days but have no idea about what this will mean in terms of illness, hospitalisation and death.
True Jeremiahs will be expecting the sickness statistics to run off the scale before what would have been Christmas, hospitals to be overwhelmed in the same timeframe and the death count to rise inexorably through the early months of 2022. The big question for readers is what this will do to the already beleaguered entertainment industry.
Worryingly, in the last few days for different theatres, stretching from one of the largest to the smaller end of fringe, have announced postponements of openings and/or performances. This is costly and currently results from the old, familiar Delta variant of the virus. It almost certainly prefigures much more of the same when Omicron gets up and running just in time for the festive season i.e. the time of year when most theatres expect to build up reserves which will carry them through the next 12 months.
Please forgive this writer for repetition but yet again one has to bemoan the government’s point-blank refusal to provide theatres with any kind of insurance against coronavirus closures. While we all need to accept that money is tight, had they not blown £5 billion on business loan fraud and quite possibly as much again on furlough fraud, our industry and many others could be doing far better.
Instead, the position for many theatres could become parlous over the next few months, especially with the new rules requiring self-isolation whenever one comes into contact with anyone who tests positive. We all remember what chaos similar legislation caused earlier in the year.
If underwriting shows offends Tory ministers, then we can always dress up the payment under a different badge. Perhaps we could call it a hardship fund and extended not only to theatre companies but also individuals who would like to work in the industry but are finding their opportunities diminished to zero.
The problem with this government is that not one of its Cabinet ministers and certainly neither of the last two nominally responsible for culture have any interest in the arts, let alone anything as arcane as theatre, dance or opera.
One imagines that theatre managers will have been relieved to discover that they escaped the need to administer a vaccine passport scheme by the skin of their teeth. They shouldn’t be complacent, since there is every chance that this will be imposed within the next fortnight judging by past experience of Boris Johnson’s administration a.k.a. U-turn Central. As it is, the latest changes mean that anyone wishing to visit a theatre will be forced to wear a mask throughout, although presumably this excludes performers.
That obligation could potentially hit sales, is unlikely to do anything positive for the catering franchises and will make theatregoing a less comfortable experience, although one could argue that theatregoers may be considerably safer as a result.
At the moment, the only way that any producer is likely to get rich will be via a trip to the local bookmaker to hedge their bets by investing a significant sum on theatre closures in the very near future. Unfortunately, there is every chance that the odds on such an event will make the bet uneconomic.
It is depressing to have to write yet another column about theatres under threat but this may not be the last in what is becoming an increasingly long line as the next wave of virus sweeps in and our rulers flounder around.