Andrew Lloyd Webber offers London Palladium for trial to safely reopen West End theatres without social distancing

Jonathan Prynn
Getty Images for American Theatre

Theatre bosses are drawing up a radical blueprint of measures to allow shows to reopen safely without social distancing and save the West End from disaster.

They have warned the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that venues can never operate commercially with any distancing rules and that even world-renowned landmarks such as the Royal Albert Hall and the Royal Opera House could go bust.

One said the lockdown was a bigger threat to the future of the West End than the financial crisis, the 9/11 and 7/7 terrorist attacks combined.

As part of the effort to bring the West End back to life, Andrew Lloyd-Webber has offered the use of the 2,295-seater London Palladium near Oxford Circus to trial and test technology to make a night at the theatre safe.

This includes infrared temperature scanners over the main entrance that would identify audience members with a fever. They would be refused entrance and offered an alternative date.

Ticket holders would also be required to show an app-based “medical passport” on their phones that would give them a traffic light rating of green, amber or red.

Only audience members in the green category would be allowed in so that “people would feel confident that were not sitting in the room with anyone who shouldn’t be sitting in the room.” All staff are likely to be required to wear PPE and audiences will probably have to wear face masks, although a final decision has not been taken.

Rebecca Kane Burton, chief executive of the Cats and Phantom of the Opera composer’s company LW Theatres, which has seven West End venues, said: “There is a keenness to work with us at DCMS, which has set up an entertainment and events working group.

“We’re saying ‘here are some resources, let’s work together.’

“They came up with a set of guiding principles that allowed sport to get up and running again, so why can’t we replicate that with the theatre sector?”

Small-scale testing of the technology is expected to start over the coming weeks with a view to theatres reopening in time for Christmas.

Ms Kane Burton said it would need to be proved effective by the end of August to allow the Palladium to reopen in time for its scheduled pantomime in December. The move comes after a West End summit last week hosted by Nickie Aiken, the Tory MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, at which industry leaders warned of the devastation likely to be wreaked on the capital’s entertainment district if two-metre social distancing is a legal requirement.

Craig Hassel, chief executive of the Royal Albert Hall, said the Kensington venue was in “a perilous situation” and would run out of money and be forced to declare itself insolvent by next April.

He said two-metre social distancing would reduce capacity by 65 to 70 per cent “and that would immediately make us not viable”. He added: “The thought of the Royal Albert Hall closing is inconceivable and but it’s a reality we’re looking at now, this situation is pretty grim.”

He said that donations from the public had contributed around £90,000 at a time when ticket sales should have brought in revenue of £8.5 million.

Alex Beard, chief executive of the Royal Opera House, said its reserves were enough to see it through to “late Autumn but certainly not into the New Year.”

He added: ”At the heart of our business is the absolute antithesis of social distancing. We’re bringing 100 people on stage, 100 people into the pit and performing to 2000 people in the auditorium.

“We need occupancy of 95 per cent to break even so whether it is 25 per cent or 35 per cent, or even if we can get it up to 45 per cent with large family groups, that’s clearly not a viable situation.”

Julian Bird, chief executive of the Society of London Theatre called on the Government to invest £300 million per quarter in the sector nationally to help it survive the lockdown.

Ms Aiken said: ”The industry needs decisions now and I am pleading with ministers to consider these measures. The West End is a fragile eco-system and I fear we will see thousands of job losses in the next month or two.”