(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian 12/16; via Pam Green; Photo: The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage, directed by Nicholas Hytner, is the Christmas show at the Bridge theatre in London. Photograph: Manuel Harlan.)
With a surge in cancellations across the country, the new strain of Covid might be the biggest threat to the UK’s stage industry yet
It is the crucial season for theatres when families, schools and panto-lovers traditionally crowd into festive shows and fill venues’ coffers for the year ahead. But this winter, amid rising Covid case numbers and the spread of the Omicron variant, bookings are down and performances are being cancelled at the last minute – and at an alarming rate – due to Covid infections among cast and crew. Theatres have been left “in crisis mode”, “on a knife edge” and “terrified” of what the next weeks will bring.
The producer Kenny Wax, whose hits include the musical Six and the Goes Wrong series of comedies, told the Guardian that “the industry is probably in its most precarious position”, even after almost two years of uncertainty. On Wednesday, Sir Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of the Bridge theatre in London, predicted on BBC Newsnight: “the three weeks of the year on which all live arts and entertainment businesses rely … will be a write-off”. Sarah Brigham, who runs Derby theatre, said that cast illnesses have left artistic directors around the country asking themselves with dread: “When am I going to have to walk on stage with a script?” Natalie Ibu, artistic director of Northern Stage in Newcastle, said: “What we don’t need is more uncertainty and mixed messages [from government] – that just feels like March 2020 all over again. We’ve come too far to find ourselves stuck in Groundhog Day.”
Northern Stage’s production of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice became, on Thursday, one of the latest shows to cancel performances due to Covid cases despite having a range of measures in place to keep the company safe. Ibu said it was “hugely disappointing” and that they hoped to restart performances from 28 December. Cancellations have hit stages and shows of all sizes – from small arts centres to our grandest cultural institutions, local pantos to West End musicals including Cabaret and Hamilton – but with the same loss of vital revenue. Of similar importance is the loss of audience confidence at a time of great uncertainty and mixed messaging when Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, has urged people not to “mix with people you don’t have to” but Boris Johnson has declared people should not cancel Christmas parties.
Ibu said that an enormous amount of work and financial support had gone into reopening theatres and rebuilding audience confidence. “What we need now is clarity to enable us to use that investment in the best way we can for our community.” Brigham added that “clear messaging and role-modelling from leadership would be really helpful. It takes us back to March 2020 when we weren’t told to close down but audiences were told not to come to us.” Certainty and reassurance for audiences and businesses were paramount, she added, not just through strong public health messaging but also strong economic measures. The playwright Mark Ravenhill, now co-artistic director of the King’s Head theatre in London, told the Guardian earlier this week that the next few months “could be the most perilous of all” for theatres. “If this turns out to be a period where theatres are technically allowed to open, but very few people want to go to them, that would be a big financial challenge.”