Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily, still coming to you from the US, where I’ve been in COVID-positive self-isolation in Florida since returning over a week ago from a Christmas cruise to the Caribbean and Bahamas; but I am finally able to fly home this weekend, as a negative COVID fit-to-fly test is no longer required from today.
Yes, I took a calculated risk in going on a cruise in the current climate; but it was a requirement of the cruise that all on it had to have proof of full vaccination, plus everyone was tested on boarding; and I’m told, around 50 people were denied boarding who were positive. However, I still managed to exit the cruise with positive reading, and some symptoms of COVID as well: a dry cough and mild cold.
But as the UK government seemed to acknowledge when it removed the pre-flight testing requirement, COVID is already at large in the community, so what’s another case arriving in the UK between friends?
Of course I only found out my positive status because I had wanted to fly home to the UK last week; my original plan had been to go on from Florida to New York for a few days, and I could have flown quite happily there, oblivious to my status, and attended Broadway shows once I got there, as all that was required for both was proof of vaccination, not a current negative test.
But that’s where we are now: avoiding COVID risks is impossible in public settings, so we either choose to avoid them entirely — or take a chance.
THROWING CAUTION TO THE WIND
The UK government — or at least Westminster, with its jurisdiction over COVID regulations in England — has actively thrown all caution to the wind, refusing to bring in any restrictions to mitigate the spread of the virus; no wonder we are now in a position where over 200,000 people a day are newly testing positive — a certain under-estmate, obviously, as it only records those who are actually being tested. And the army have now been drafted in to help out the beleaguered NHS, with many trusts around the country daily declaring critical incidents.
In these circumstances, is it any wonder that theatres are facing faltering box offices? A news feature reported by Dominic Maxwell for The Times today, quoted David Pugh, producer of the critically-acclaimed Pride and Prejudice (Sort of), pictured above, telling him that it went from playing to more than 90% capacity to 49 per cent the week after Johnson announced the implementation of Plan B, and then 31% the week after that. Pugh is quoted saying:
“I don’t know how much longer we can keep going. Some people are giving the impression that everything is fine. It really isn’t. It’s beyond serious.”
Lloyd Webber has taken his production of Cinderella off sale entirely, putting it on hiatus for a number of weeks — a model that has also been adopted, as I pointed out in the last newsletter, for Broadway’s MRS DOUBFIRE. According to Maxwell’s TIMES feature,
“Lloyd Webber, as Pugh points out, has deeper pockets than most, but he thinks the principle is sound. He would like more united action from producers and theatre owners, but in show business – as in Government, he suggests – ‘there is no leadership’. So if you pull out of the race, you do so on your own terms and at your own cost”.
“BABBLE IN A BUBBLE”
In today’s Daily Mail, Baz Bamigboye reinforces something I’ve been saying for months: the lack of a strong central, unified voice of information and governance is leaving audiences bewildered and the industry beleaguered. As Baz writes, “There isn’t a central, coherent voice to advise the public about what shows are on — or off — tonight. The West End has a body, the Society of London Theatre (SOLT), that’s supposed to represent theatre owners and producers. But it has been hopeless at communicating the changes that are affecting show schedules on a daily basis. On Broadway, the theatre business speaks as one. Here, it’s a jumble of conflicting voices. Babble in a bubble. Come on, people, get organised! You’ve had two years. Productions are on a precipice. Thousands of jobs are on the line.”
THE NATIONAL’S HEX WON’T OPEN TO THE PRESS AFTER ALL (YET)
After two planned Press nights on December 15 and tnen December 21 were cancelled for the National’s Christmas musical HEX — directed and with lyrics by artistic director Rufus Norris, and a book by his wife Tanya Ronder — it was announced yesterday that it won’t open to the press at all during the remainder of its current run (to January 22).
In a letter to critics, Norris wrote,
“Like many productions (including several other NT ones), this one has been blighted by Covid, with the first week of previews seeing a different combination of understudies and stand-ins at almost every performance, and three weeks of performances lost since then due to illness. We had hoped to emerge into a clearer situation in January, but while we have started performances again, fresh cases are still emerging and the creative team have had to disperse to other projects. We have also had to cancel the planned NT Live.”
He stated that the plan now is to revive it for a full run in November, when it will be made available for review. “The relationship between the work we make and the press is obviously a symbiotic and essential one, and we look forward very much to welcoming you to Hex when we return.”
But what if it doesn’t return after all? Will the piece actually evade critical scrutiny? From reports of previews, it seems that this might be the wisest course of all….
THE VAULT FESTIVAL CANCELLED FOR THIRD YEAR RUNNING
Amidst a flurry of cancellations, one of the most critical for the ongoing vitality of the theatre is the annual Vault Festival, a showcase of some 600 new shows in development, where younger and emerging artists could showcase their work to a public audience, often for the first time.
In a press statement, the organisers said:
“We have made the gut-wrenching decision to cancel VAULT Festival 2022.
Since the emergence of the Omicron variant, we’ve explored numerous options to still be able to deliver our 10th anniversary Festival safely and successfully, all of which were found to put our staff and artists at risk of being subjected to months of stress, uncertainty, and insurmountable financial vulnerability.
We have to make brave and proactive decisions to prioritise and protect the mental health, wellbeing, and safety of our staff, artists, and audiences. We work with a lot of vulnerable people, for whom participating in the festival is no longer viable in light of the ongoing developments.”
I have to admit that I’ve never been much of a fan of the Vaults, a subterranean mosh-pit of venues that even in pre-covid days felt uniquely grubby and crowded; now they strike me as sheer folly. So it makes sense to shut it down this year. But — coupled with the effective loss of the Edinburgh Fringe these last two years — an important link the chain of creativity in theatre is now missing.
Let’s hope that other venues, like BAC and of course the New Diorama, can fill the vacuum…..
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