It has been a tough week in a city that is an increasingly tough place to live. Southampton, which launched its 2025 UK city of culture bid armed with an award-winning theatre, has been dealt a major blow.
The critically praised Nuffield Southampton Theatre (NST), already in the hands of administrators, has failed to find a buyer, and on Thursday 89 staff were made redundant. A smaller campus venue has also been returned to the University of Southampton, while the city’s big auditorium, the Mayflower, has just announced it will stay closed until December.
“What we are fighting for here is the soul of the city,” said Satvir Kaur, the council cabinet member in charge of culture. “Theatres are at the heart of our plans, and we were working with the official administrators of the NST trust to keep it going. Unfortunately, it did not work.”
Southampton’s is a brutal case, but lockdown is having a cruel impact on other previously viable theatres, including well-known venues in Plymouth, Norwich, Manchester and Bolton. Not surprising perhaps, when even the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon and the Old Vic in London are in financial trouble. On Friday, as the National Theatre axed 400 casual staff, the prime minister promised a fresh rescue timetable to allow audiences across the land to return to their seats. But anything announced now could come too late for many venues.
This weekend, many of the “dark” theatres around Britain will be symbolically covered in colourful barrier tape by the campaigning group Scene Change, to draw attention to their plight. Some of these empty venues are stately buildings with long traditions of entertaining. Others, like the two year old NST, are popular newcomers.
And if “unto Southampton we shift our scene”, like Shakespeare’s narrator in Henry V, it is clear that theatres are not the only empty hulls affecting the mood of the city. In the docks, the Queen Victoria is one of a group of enormous beached cruise liners offering a grim reminder of the early days of the pandemic, and of how much less is going on in the historic port.
Up from the quay, inside the city walls and by the old town that escaped heavy wartime bombing, runs a long stretch of shops labelled the QE2 mile. Many of these businesses were boarded up before Covid-19 struck, according to Joan De Watteville from nearby Romsey. “It is all becoming run down and tatty,” she said. “There used to be lots of independent shops, but they either shut, or moved inside the West Quay centre. It looks so different to Bristol. Apart from the theatre, there’s nowhere I’d take a visitor.”
Along the high street, heralded by a hotdog stall, stands the medieval stone Bargate, a fortification against invasion, but not able to protect its port from disease now, nor in 1665, when the plague also hit Southampton hard, killing 1,700 and making gravediggers frightened to tackle the corpses.
The street leads to the cultural quarter; a square flanked by the NST and the locked-up John Hansard Gallery, where posters advertise all those shows that did not happen. In the park behind the NST one keen former patron hopes it will reopen soon. “It is a fantastic venue and invariably full whenever I go,” said Graham Churchill. A retired Sotonian, he and his friends were regulars, he said.
This weekend the joint administrator for the NST trust, Greg Palfrey of Smith and Williamson, said he needs buyers not just for the scenery and the costumes but for the theatre’s name, in order to pay back its creditors.
“We had phenomenal interest in acquiring it as a going concern, but sadly none of these could offer what the council are looking for. Regrettably, we had to let the staff go,” Palfrey said. “I’m looking to sort it out in the next few weeks, but I’ve never had to sell on anything that can’t reopen for so long. Our society is in danger of being changed by this. We need theatres and concert halls back.”
Our society is in danger of being changed by this. We need theatres and concert halls backGreg Palfrey, administrator
By the train station, where passengers are welcomed to the “International Maritime City”, is a patch of building work set to become the Mayflower Quarter. But the centrepiece of this zone, the Mayflower Theatre, is shut. Dating from 1926, it is the third biggest theatre outside London, with 2,370 seats to fill. It is where a young, pre-Mary Poppins Julie Andrews made her stage debut, and a venue now pinning its hopes on the winter pantomime, Cinderella, starring Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig Revel Horwood.
“We need a Mary Poppins now to sort this out. It is a real catastrophe,” said chief executive Michael Ockwell. “There are moments when there is light at the end of the tunnel, then suddenly a train is hurtling towards us. The government should look at it as an investment – and not just to avoid redundancies but because more people go to the theatre each week than go to football.
“In Southampton, live theatre contributes £75m a year to the economy, when you consider the surrounding businesses as well.”
Council worker Angela Morton and her colleague Kelly Betteridge are both saddened by the thought of a city without a theatre, although they didn’t go often.
“I’d been booked to see the Gloria Estefan musical at the Mayflower, but it didn’t happen” said Horton.
“I saw Mamma Mia! there, which was brilliant,” said Betteridge. “And they did great stuff for young people at the NST. If you can go on a plane, why can’t we go to the theatre?”
Ockwell explains that 90% of his income is based on box office, and that social distancing rules threaten all his plans. For the NST, which produced its own shows, rather than receiving large touring productions, the margins were smaller still. “It was all risk for them. But we’re sinking and we need lifeboats. At least the council is pursuing the culture bid.”
One of the closed restaurants and bars near the Mayflower, Gusto Lounge, is reopening this weekend. Owner Justin Hellen said he knows takings will be down because of social distancing and the lack of theatregoers. “We broke records with takings of £5,000 one Saturday when The Lion King was on,” he said. “We’ll be lucky if we make £1,000 all weekend.”
Down in the dock, a flapping purple banner reads: “Southampton. There’s not as much as you think”. It turns out to be a sign promoting water conservation, not the cultural bid, but Kaur recognises that without the return of the theatres, success in 2025 is unlikely.
“We want to tell the story of Southampton to the country, and to the world, and we had all the ingredients,” she said. “The performing arts create jobs in times of austerity, and they have already done amazing work here for those with mental ill health. They have even reduced re-offending.”
The lifeboat the city now needs must come in the form of emergency funds to prevent all hopes of a revival from sinking.