The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, says it is likely to be November “at the earliest” before theatres are given a target date for reopening without social distancing.
The news will cause further anguish in the UK’s beleaguered theatre industry, which has been calling for a clearer timescale for stage five of Dowden’s roadmap to reopen performance venues: permitting indoor theatres to reopen with a fuller audience. Outdoor performances with social distancing are currently allowed across England, with indoor productions for limited audience numbers permitted from next month.
Talking to Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday, Dowden said he “can’t give a stronger commitment” than Boris Johnson’s recent suggestion that “when we get to November we will look again at social distancing and where we are with the spread of the virus”. The risk of coronavirus remains high, said Dowden, who added: “I don’t want to give people false hope.”
With the government’s job retention scheme set to end on 31 October, theatres now face a period of increased risk during winter, which will be made worse if they are unable to have time to stage profitable pantomimes. In an article for the Evening Standard, Cameron Mackintosh wrote that “the possibility of a proper panto at Christmas is almost certainly ‘behind you’” if theatres don’t get the go ahead until November to reopen fully.
Last week, introducing his London Palladium pilot experiment for reopening theatres, the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber had a message for Johnson: “Give us a date, mate!” Lloyd Webber predicted that regional theatre would be devastated without the box-office boost of a pantomime this Christmas and said that the producer Michael Harrison, co-owner of Qdos Pantomimes, which runs productions around the UK, “cannot proceed” with this year’s season if a reopening date was not announced by 1 August.
Mackintosh wrote that he and Lloyd Webber have “permanently shut down our London and UK touring productions of The Phantom of the Opera but are determined to bring it back to London in the future”. If Mackintosh is unable to reopen box offices in November, he predicts he will delay their reopening until next summer. There is “no endgame to this crisis in sight”, he wrote, and he is downsizing his organisation “to ensure my company’s survival”. With theatres closed indefinitely, “I have had to let go all the actors, musicians, stage staff and freelancers that work for me,” wrote Mackintosh. His production and theatre management staff has been cut by 60%.
Theatres around the UK continue to announce redundancy consultations, with Bristol Old Vic now anticipating that more than a third of its 60 full-time jobs could be at risk. Dowden gave details from the first funding round of the government’s £1.57bn emergency arts package on Wednesday. It will see a total of £622m distributed, with £500m delivered via Arts Council England to museums, galleries, theatres, music and comedy organisations; £30m in grants via the British Film Institute to independent cinemas; and £92m via the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Historic England to heritage sites.
Jon Morgan, director of Theatres Trust, said that because the vast majority of venues would now have to cancel their Christmas shows, more theatres will need to be supported through the government’s rescue package. “We urge funding bodies to consider and prioritise the circumstances of theatres that rely on pantomime for a significant proportion of their turnover,” he said. In some cases, Morgan said, this was as much as 40%. “If the funds do not reach enough of these theatres, particularly with the furlough scheme ending in October, we will see more theatres closing their doors permanently.”