Speaking to a Commons select committee, Lord Andrew Lloyd-Webber warned that the arts are “at the point of no return”. He also added that it would be economically “impossible” to run theatres with social distancing rules in place and that, although theatres are attempting to find ways to run shows, the government needs to step in. He asked for a date to reopen properly, and warned that many shows would not survive – or even be able to come back at all – if they didn’t. With the future of theatre and the arts now hanging in the balance, will they be a casualty of the Covid-19 pandemic?
Lord Lloyd-Webber’s comments come as the Royal Albert Hall has made a plea for £20m in donations to help it survive. Lucy Noble, the venue’s artistic and commercial director, told MPs that 80% of its staff were on furlough, and that there were “huge consequences to venues not being able to put performances on… serious financial consequences… all venues are on their knees financially”. The Royal Albert Hall has lost £18m in income, refunded more than £6.5m in ticket sales and exhausted its reserves since closing its doors in March. Worst of all, it is not eligible for an emergency grant for the government, and a loan (if successful) would arrive in December.
Social distancing requirements mean that any show would almost certainly be running at a loss
The arts crisis is about more than just keeping the lights on, however. Theatres want to get productions up and running again, but social distancing requirements mean that any show would almost certainly be running at a loss. Lloyd-Webber warned that even the anticipated Frozen musical would struggle to break even: “Disney would be lucky to make their investment back on that show for two or three years. The margins are incredibly tight.” His comments were echoed by Rebecca Kane Burton, chief executive of the LW Theatres, which runs Lloyd-Webber’s venues: “We don’t want to open theatres on a socially distanced basis. I have no intention of opening buildings at 30% capacity.”
He went on to say that, without support, theatre was facing a bleak future. He said: “There comes a point now when we really can’t go on much more. Theatre is an incredibly labour-intensive business. In many ways putting on a show now is almost a labour of love. Very few shows hit the jackpot in the way a Hamilton, Lion King or Phantom of the Opera do.” The latter show has already closed permanently on the West End, the first theatrical victim of the pandemic. A spokeswoman for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS) said that the government was “working flat out to support our world class performing arts sector through challenging times”. She said: “Our unprecedented £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund builds on £200m in emergency public funding to stabilise organisations, protect jobs and ensure work continues to flow to freelancers. This funding will support organisations of all sizes across the country, including theatres.
Despite the concern for theatre’s future, there were also suggestions as to how it could make a comeback
“Performances indoors and outdoors can now take place with a socially distanced audience and we are working at pace with the industry on innovative proposals for how full audiences might return safely as soon as possible. We also want the public to show their support by visiting theatres as they start to reopen.”
Despite the concern for theatre’s future, there were also suggestions as to how it could make a comeback. In South Korea, Phantom of the Opera was able to run with no social distancing by enforcing strict hygiene measures – Lord Lloyd-Webber spent £100,000 in July on a pilot project at the London Palladium in the hope of echoing this success, but was forced to comply with the government’s social distancing rules. Theatres could, in a sense, be transformed into close bubbles, and monitoring the health of the patrons would help increase capacity. Lloyd-Webber said: “I am absolutely confident that the air in the London Palladium and in my theatres is purer than the air outside.”
There is no guarantee that theatre will survive Covid-19
Rapid testing is the short-term measure favoured by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, and has been praised by actor Simon Callow as “the dream”. Such an approach was also suggested by Melvin Benn, managing director of Festival Republic – he offered a plan in which everybody attending an event was both tested and “tested negative in order to get an entry, therefore are unable to transmit the virus to other people because everybody in the place is tested and clear. It gets rid of the need for social distancing”.
As bleak as it is to write, this is the truth – there is no guarantee that theatre will survive Covid-19. Rapid testing could help restore audiences, but questions of funding are more essential before we even reach that stage. It’s hugely unlikely that Phantom of the Opera will be the only production forced to close, but how we respond now will affect how significant the damage to the arts sector is. Andrew Lloyd-Webber is right to warn that the arts are near the point of no return, but we have to hope that the damage isn’t irreparable.