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Final curtain? How coronavirus might have killed off London's West End

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Closed Theatres on London's empty Shaftesbury Avenue in March 2020
Closed Theatres on London's empty Shaftesbury Avenue in March 2020   -   Copyright  Frank Augstein/AP
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London’s West End. Iconic, legendary, rivalled only by New York’s Broadway, and even that comparison is shrugged off by many.

But the once pulsing streets of Soho and Covent Garden have lulled to a hush and all the playhouses are dark. What is to become of it all?

Home to the record-breaking musical, Les Miserables, for so many years, the Sondheim (until recently called the Queen’s) Theatre stands in silence on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Wardour Street. A few metres further up, a line of motorbikes usually half-obscures the vision of a group of homeless men who regularly gather at the gates of St Anne’s Churchyard. The same distance in the opposite direction is Wong Kei's, a Chinese eatery famous for its hilariously rude waiters. The movement in this zone of Central London was relentless.

The Sondheim's doors were once open all day for the theatre box office, where there was often a quaint English queue. And in the early evening, the front of house doors would open for theatre-goers aching to hear the timeless melodies and intertwining leitmotifs of Boublil and Schönberg. But perhaps, first, a double gin with a slice of lemon, the most classic of West End drinks, and expensive enough to be a talking point across the multiple foyers. At every glance you find red carpets, ornate stuccoed cornices and the obligatory black and white production stills of 'days gone by', featuring the ubiquitous British Theatre faces of John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole and Laurence Olivier.

Within 50 metres of the Sondheim, there are three further playhouses. In order, as you perambulate towards Piccadilly Circus, they are: The Gielgud, The Apollo and finally The Lyric, with a pub opposite the stage door bearing the same name. Here, backstage crews and casts alike would gather for a post-performance pint or glass of wine. The small watering hole was often full to the rafters and its theatrical clientele would spill out into the street, irking cab drivers. Now this, too, is lifeless. The heart of the West End has stopped beating, and there are going to be a lot of casualties.

It is an industry that makes hundreds of millions - attendances of 15.3 million people generated gross revenue of £798,994,920 in 2019 (and generated £133,165,820 of VAT for the UK Treasury) - but also costs a fortune to create, perform and run. But now the future of every level of that creation, performance and management has been thrown into doubt.

From the ticket office to the ushers, from the spotlight operators to the eccentric stage doorkeepers, from the understudies to the principals, London's Theatre scene employs an enormous range of people. All of them in fear of a lengthy spell without a job. And as news of major theatre closures in Leicester, Southampton and Southport reach the capital, the reality of redundancies and cancelled contract work looms larger than ever.

Over two-thirds will "go out of business"

The Chief Executive of UK Theatre, Julian Bird, told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee on Tuesday 9 June that, according to a new survey, "70 per cent of theatres or production companies, both, would run out of cash, go out of business by the end of this year...unless there is a change in government support."

Approximately 290,000 are currently employed in the UK theatre industry, with over 70 per cent of these roles identified as being at risk. Small businesses formed solely to facilitate theatre will also fold. Costume makers, set builders, bar staff, the list goes on.

"Theatres are at the heart of communities," Bird said during the committee session. "And I don't think we should underestimate that, if they go away, what that means for the future of our country."

On 26 March 2020, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that the Government would provide support to self-employed workers, and the lion's share of those working in the industry are contract workers. The support comes in the form of a cash grant of 80% of their profits, capped at £2,500 per month. The much-trumpeted Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) was a failsafe for self-employed people in the UK and came into force on 13 May 2020.

But on Friday, May 29 came the news that the goalposts were, inevitably, moving.

"In September, taxpayers will pay 70% of the furlough grant, with employers contributing 10%. In October, taxpayers will pay 60% and employers will contribute 20%. Then, after eight months of this extraordinary intervention, of the government's stepping in to help pay people's wages, this scheme will close," announced the Chancellor. The screws are tightening on this world-renowned entertainment Mecca, so Euronews spoke to some of those who are directly affected.

The performer

"I’ve heard no mention of the importance of our industry, how the government feel about it, no signal of any support," says Olivier Award-winning actor and singer David Thaxton. "It feels like the arts are being forgotten, as if the weight, not just artistically but economically, that our industry brings to the UK just doesn’t matter."

Michael Graham
Thaxton in rehearsal for Jesus Christ SuperstarMichael Graham

When pressed on how government schemes such as the SEISS have been initialised to alleviate the poverty caused by unemployment, he acknowledges that many performers have been helped. But he's looking for signs that a bailout might be on the horizon for such a massive cultural sector that gives pleasure to so many.

This is an existential crisis for theatre
David Thaxton

"The simple fact, I fear, is that this is an existential crisis for theatre. Without a significant bailout, handled properly, I shudder to think how many shows will close, how many theatres will sit dark for months on end, how many theatre companies will no longer exist. It is terrifying."

Creative and technical

Chris Withers is a freelancer across more than one London theatre. He spans both the creative and technical sides of production in his capacities as a lighting designer and a lighting technician. Withers is on zero-hours contracts for two of the UK's big hitters in the performing arts - the Royal Opera House, and the National Theatre, as well as working for The Bridge Theatre, a smaller, private playhouse by London's City Hall.

The last briefing he attended at The National, showed Withers the writing on the wall. "They said they're in such a dire financial situation now that they won't be able to contribute towards staff costs beyond what they legally have to. So that basically means zero-hours contracts are not going to be supported beyond the end of July. I wouldn't be surprised if the other organisations I'm furloughed with follow suit so it looks like by the end of July I will be in a situation where I have no income and no government support other than Universal Credit, but there are so many exemptions to that, that I may well not be. And it would not be nearly enough to cover what's needed to live."

Withers adds that he may be forced to apply for one of the industry's benevolent funds, of which there are several. Asked how bad this situation could get, he says he is fortunate to have support from his partner and his family and is hopeful that he won't descend into real poverty. When he's not working at the three theatres, Withers donates his time to helping out at a local food bank in Lewisham, so he knows how low one can truly go. It has given him a perspective on the wider social effects of the COVID-charged economic downturn.

"The demand we've seen while I've been working there has gone through the roof. They went from dealing with 50 households a week to up to about 80 a day in three weeks at the beginning of the crisis."

But for himself, Withers is increasingly convinced that he will have to find work outside of the industry that he knows and loves.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
A man wears a mask to protect against the coronavirus as he walks past a theatre in London, Monday, May 4, 2020Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

The union

Bectu (The Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union) has welcomed 2,000 new members since the lockdown began. They represent over 30,000 full time and casual workers. It's chief, Philippa Childs, explained to Euronews that it's the access to information and expertise in a time of chaos that drives the new membership. But what can a union really do other than lobby government?

"The culture ministry have been weak throughout. They haven't put enough pressure on the treasury," she laments.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden appointed Neil Mendoza as Commissioner for Cultural Recovery and Renewal to support the sector’s recovery.

"Arts, music, theatre, museums and heritage and culture in all its other forms are a vital part of people’s lives up and down the country," says Mendoza in his press release, but the unions and indeed the stranded casuals aren't hearing any answers.

Phillipa and her team began with a plan in the first phase to get theatres to agree to furlough as many workers as possible including the zero-hours contractors. This was a success. Now, however, with the burden partially passed back to the employer, she knows that theatres can't afford it. So what now? Is it bailout or bust?

"Yes," says Childs. "Without some sort of support package from the government, which would give the industry some relief, we acknowledge that the economics don't add up. So we've tried to have some influence over those decisions with an equitable approach to ensure that the 'pain' doesn't just get inflicted on one group of people, that it can be shared amongst the workforce."

Aside from the running maxim that the British theatre industry is held together with gaffer tape, the truth is that it's the non-permanent staff that keep the scene going.

Looking out for casual workers like Chris Withers has been Bectu's primary fight during the pandemic. Negotiations with one of Chris' employers, the Royal Opera House, haven't gone as well as the union had hoped.

"We've been trying to get the Opera House and other theatres to be pragmatic and talk to us about what the solutions are rather than just deciding what the solution is and imposing it," says Childs. "They haven't seemed to want to engage with us with what a better solution might look like."

Royal Opera House takes casuals off payroll

The management at Covent Garden's Royal Opera House drafted a letter on Wednesday 10 June to be sent to the casual workforce in the coming days. In it, they will be told that, due to the government handing back a proportion of the financial burden to the employer, there will be no more furloughing of casual workers from July 31.

"Given the increasingly challenging financial situation, we are not able to bear this additional cost. Therefore, we will cease furlough arrangements for casual workers from Friday 31 July 2020," the message reads, adding that they will also be removed from the company payroll.

"We will make all casual workers leavers from payroll that date, so that we can pay all accrued but untaken annual leave. This payment will be made, less tax/NI deductions, on 7 August."

There then follows a reminder that the Royal Opera House Benevolent Fund "is available to approach for financial assistance."

In a statement sent to Euronews, Royal Opera House CEO Alex Beard said "we must shine the spotlight on the current crisis facing UK theatres and draw on all of our collective ingenuity and determination to survive. However, we cannot achieve this on determination alone. Put simply: without further government support, our theatres will close, the arts will shrink and a generation of talent could be lost to history."

The ROH are part of the Entertainment and Events Working Group from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Euronews attempted to speak to Beard about the progress and effectiveness of this group but his team declined to set up an interview.

The executive producer

Theatre producer Jason Haigh-Ellery is another player who maintains that "government support for the industry is needed."

Haigh-Ellery is a Director of the theatre production company DLAP, and their latest production is the popular musical “Rock of Ages” which was originally going out on tour in January 2021. "We moved our dates back voluntarily and allowed our pencilled dates to be taken by other productions that had to move from the Spring and Summer of 2020 – so we are now looking at starting in May 2021," he outlines.

A veteran of 26 domestic and international touring shows as well as 9 West End productions, Haigh-Ellery is a serial investor who is hoping the audiences come back, but isn't expecting them immediately.

"I really think that UK theatre goers will hold back until the Autumn before returning in large numbers. I can see open-air theatres being popular and I know a number of drive-in cinemas who are thinking about putting on live performances. A number of high energy shows such as “Fame”, “Rock of Ages” and “Grease” would do well as concert version shows in those sorts of venues I’m sure."

For Haigh-Ellery, anxiety in other areas of the industry are reflected closer to home.

"At present my girlfriend is waiting to find out when she is supposed to be starting her role in a touring show. Originally she was supposed to be in rehearsal in July. She knows that won’t be happening. The show isn’t cancelled, but until dates and venues can be changed, she has no idea when production will start. A lot of performers are in the same boat. Waiting by the phone to find out when they will start again."

“Those that didn’t get jobs already would normally have consoled themselves that another audition was around the corner. At present, very few auditions are going on, and these are via self-tape.”

Haigh-Ellery has also worked with Selladoor, a major UK touring company. They have already announced the postponement of several shows that will be re-booked for 2021 and 2022.

"Some of these shows were due to tour internationally," he explains. "But the fact that up to 45 people could be attached to one show across multiple borders may prove a stumbling block for some time yet. Theatres and producers will need government support to ensure that such an important industry returns with strength.”

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
Food delivery riders sit on the steps of a closed theatre in central London, Thursday, March 19, 2020, after theatres in London are closed for the foreseeable future.Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP