July 9: Can the West End survive the current uncertainty?

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Social distancing restrictions may be about to be lifted, but can the West End survive the mass self-isolation that the current virus surge will require?

As I wrote about in my column on Wednesday, it’s all very well that social distancing restrictions may be about to be lifted across the theatre industry (despite surging infection rates for COVID), but shows will be shut down anyway the moment any cast or crew member has to self-isolate after either coming down with an infection themselves or just coming into contact with someone who is positive.

SOLT and UK Theatre chief executive Julian Bird duly issued a statement yesterday:

No wonder Sonia Friedman, speaking to The Stage in a story published yesterday that was headlined: “Commercial sector is weeks from collapse and needs support now”, warned:

“The complexity of what we are dealing with, and the number of crises that mount up, all lead to one sad and catastrophic conclusion – which is the commercial sector particularly is basically on its last legs. We have weeks, maybe a few months, left to keep fighting, but if we don’t have measures in place to keep going within the next three months, I don’t know – and this is not me being hysterical or trying to grab a headline – how we keep going. It will be financially impossible.”

She went on to compare the situation to a prolonged boxing match:

“We are now in the third round of that fight, without a break, without any help from anyone, and therefore if you are expected to continue to fight, you are eventually – however strong you are and however much you believe in this fight – going to be knocked out. And it’s physically and mentally impossible to keep going. We are in round three of that fight now.”

While the subsided and independent sectors have had support — including usually unsubsidised venues like the Menier Chocolate Factory who’ve drawn on Culture Recovery Funds and got themselves over £800,000 in the process — she says, “We have had none of it, we are bleeding everywhere and every day we wake up – a group of us in the commercial sector – and talk and share the disastrous news from the day before.”

Today came the news that Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, currently back at the Apollo, will run to September 26, “before taking a pause and returning to West End in 2022”. The show is, of course, in the third year of its (interrupted) run at the Apollo, but producer Nica Burns has brought it defiantly back as soon as she was able after each lockdown has been eased; and though this is no doubt a good business decision to hit pause right now, given the amount of uncertainty in the business and what will actually happen after “Freedom Day” on July 19 with the seemingly inexorable rise of COVID infection rates already, I’m concerned that even Burns appears to have her doubts about the ongoing viability of sustaining a show as large as this as we head into the winter.

And yet all the other big shows have variously announced their returns, including Sonia Friedman’s own productions of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and The Book of Mormon (now with former lead producer Scott Rudin removed from the billing); I’m wondering if they are going to rue the day that they decided to go ahead. Those big shows have big overheads — when Prince of Egypt recently returned, it revealed that it supports 154 jobs cast, orchestra and backstage jobs every night. It means that not only are the chances of some of the company coming down with COVID, or being closely exposed to it, both of which would necessitate self-isolation on current rules, but also they require large capacity audiences.

And of course, that is why they’ve almost all held off coming back until after step four of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown; that date is now just over a week away, from July 19, and some show are immediately availing themselves of the expanded capacity to hold press nights, with full houses, for Cinderella (on Monday July 19 and Tuesday July 20) and Ian McKellen’s Hamlet (at Windsor on Tuesday July 20).

But while filling press nights is one thing, I’m also wondering how many other theatres will find audiences either reluctant to return to them if they’re running at that full capacity, and/or the audiences will even be there to draw on. A big chunk of the West End audience, especially for the long-runners, are tourists; and with Britain soon set to be the virus capital of Europe, its hardly a selling point to come to visit.