The show can’t go on: Covid cases force London theatres to cancel shows

·5-min read

The UK’s theatre industry is facing an increasingly bumpy recovery despite an end to Covid-19 restrictions, with a number of West End shows forced to cancel performances due to government isolation rules.

Cinderella won’t be going to the ball: in fact, she won’t be leaving the house at all.

Musical theatre bigwig Andrew Lloyd Webber has cancelled the first two nights of his high-profile new musical ‘Cinderella’ in London after a member of the cast tested positive for Covid-19. The rest of the cast and crew are now advised to self-isolate.

In a seething statement posted on Twitter, Lloyd Webber noted that the “impossible conditions created by the blunt instrument that is the Government’s isolation guidance, mean that we cannot continue”. The “lives and livelihoods of hundreds of people” would be affected by the decision, he claimed, adding, “Freedom Day has turned into closure day.”

‘Cinderella’ is the latest theatre casualty of the UK’s Covid-19 tracking system, which forces entire productions to shut down because one person has been “pinged” by the Covid tracing app or has tested positive. In England and Wales, where the NHS app operates, people are sent alerts – or “pings” if they have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19.

A series of cancellations have coincided with the UK relaxing all Covid-19 restrictions on July 19 – dubbed “Freedom Day” by the British press – and a number of productions aren’t able to take advantage of the new rules allowing them to fill seats to capacity.

Russian roulette

“The thing about theatre is that you spend all the money before you open and then you claw the money back once you’ve opened,” explained Paul Virides, an independent theatre producer based in London. “People outlay loads of cash to get these shows up and running, and then have no way of recouping that money.”

After almost 16 months of closure, theatre bodies also want the government to bring forward rules – due to come into force on August 16 – that fully vaccinated people who have come into contact with someone who has Covid will only have to self-isolate if they test positive themselves.

Currently, everyone who has been in contact with an infected person has to self-isolate, even if they subsequently test negative.

Some of the London West End productions that have been forced to cancel performances are the blockbuster musicals ‘Hairspray’, ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’ and ‘The Prince of Egypt’, as well as The Globe’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

The current guidance puts huge pressure on cast and crew members, says Neil Laidlaw, one of the lead producers for ‘The Prince of Egypt’.

“It’s like Russian roulette every day waiting for people’s test results,” he said.

The high-budget musicals for which London’s West End is famous employ extensive backstage staff working in different departments, from stage management and props to wigs and wardrobe – with cast members circulating between all of them. That makes the risk of being in close contact with someone who tests positive for Covid-19 even higher.

“Offstage staff has grown over the years because more technology is being used in theatre nowadays. All of the automation happening on stage needs more people. All it takes is one of those people to be pinged and the whole performance goes down,” said Virides.

A financial tightrope

That was the case for ‘Wonderville’, a magic and illusion show which was forced to postpone its opening night.

“Financially, for us, the consequences are catastrophic,” said Stephen McGill, a producer on the show, noting that if customers don’t rebook tickets, production companies have to honour refunds out of depleting box office coffers.

“Because we don’t have any Covid insurance, unlike film and TV, we don’t have any protection,” said McGill. “We’re walking a tightrope. We’ve already lost a weekend and now have five weeks to try and make up the shortfall.”

The Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre estimate that the sector has taken an economic hit of between £507 million and £725 million annually [€589 million - €840 million]. Industry bodies such as the performing arts workers union Equity have urged the government to establish insurance policies in the case of cancellations.

The show must go on – but at a cost

'The Prince of Egypt' is now preparing to go back onstage on Wednesday after a 10-day isolation period for cast and crew. Laidlaw explains that they had to lay off staff for those 10 days to cut costs.

“It’s a horrendous thing to have to do to people,” he says. “We have a lot of overheads that don’t stop during that time period, and we literally lose hundreds of thousands of pounds in lost box office sales.”

The “Freedom Day“ end to restrictions was marred by a rise in coronavirus cases, fuelled by the highly contagious Delta variant. On top of that, many younger cast members haven’t yet been vaccinated, as Covid-19 vaccines were only offered to people under the age of 30 at the beginning of June. Many theatre groups fear that cancellations will only increase if cases continue to surge over the summer.

“As cases increase, contact with someone who has the virus is going to increase. It’s a cycle,” said Laidlaw.

Theatre sector trade bodies are sounding the alarm about the devastating impact of recurrent cancellations on the arts, with press releases and public letters to the government taking an increasingly desperate tone. The Society of London Theatre recently warned that the theatre industry was at risk of market failure.

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