UK theatres go dark following Boris Johnson's advice to audiences to stay away

Published: 17 March 2020
Reporter: David Chadderton

Palace Theatre, London Credit: Elizabeth Jamieson on Unsplash

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's speech telling people to stay away from public places such as pubs, restaurants and theatres has seen theatres go dark around the country, but he has been criticised for not officially closing them down, meaning that they won't be able to claim from insurance policies for loss of income.

He said, "public venues such as theatres should no longer be visited... the proprietors of those venues are taking the logical steps that you would imagine, you are seeing the change happen already. As for enforcement, we have the powers if necessary but I don't believe it will be necessary to use those powers."

Some theatres had already announced closures before Johnson's announcement in late afternoon, mostly in London, but it was followed by closure notices around the country, many at short notice for that evening's performance.

The Society of London Theatres (SOLT), representing the West End and other London venues, issued a joint statement with UK Theatre, which represents theatres, theatre companies and artists around the country, to say that all of their member venues would close last night and that tickets would be refunded, although they added that "many theatres that have been forced to cancel performances are charitable enterprises, and while ticketholders are all entitled to a refund for cancelled performances, those who can afford to do so are encouraged to donate the cost of their ticket to show support for the theatre industry."

The Royal Opera House made a similar request to ticket holders to donate their ticket price to the Royal Opera House Covent Garden Foundation rather than requesting a refund. Sadler's Wells gave a number of options including, "turn their ticket price into a gift to Sadler’s Wells, in support of the organisation as it navigates this uncertain time... Donate part of their credit to Sadler’s Wells; any remaining amount can be put towards tickets for a future performance... Use their credit to purchase tickets for a future performance... ​Claim a full refund."

ATG Theatres, announcing the closure of all of its theatres last night, said, "given the current ambiguity and lack of clarity as to how long our theatres may be closed for, we hope to provide you with an update within the next 48 hours regarding the exchange of tickets. We will be consulting with industry bodies including the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre and the government over the immediate future."

Earlier in the day, Edinburgh International Festival announced that it would delay the announcement of its programme for this August, but that it still had every intention of going ahead with the festival. Shona McCarthy, Chief Executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, said that companies are continuing to register to perform at this year's Fringe, adding, "so much is still unknown, but with the Fringe still five months away, we remain optimistic that the festival will continue as usual in August."

Julian Bird, Chief Executive of SOLT and UK Theatre, said, "we are extremely grateful to all of our audiences who have continued to support us for as long as they can, and to theatre staff across the country who have worked so hard in recent weeks to ensure the safety and enjoyment of audiences. Closing venues is not a decision that is taken lightly, and we know that this will have a severe impact on many of the 290,000 individuals working in our industry. In these uncertain times, SOLT and UK Theatre remain committed to helping provide vital support for those in need, and hope we are able to welcome audiences back to our theatres before too long."

More announcements are expected later in the day, including a speech from the Chancellor to provide financial assistance to industries affected by the restrictions.