Tier 3 or not tier 3? Hard-hit West End shows await the fate of London

Business

For John Holliday the wait during the pandemic to watch Les Misérables felt almost as long as the time since he last saw London’s longest-running musical in 1987.

Queuing outside the Sondheim Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, pre-performance crowds swelling around him, Holliday is thrilled to be watching his first show in 10 months. “I’m very excited. The theatre brings people together. It’s such a source of escapism, and optimism.”

Escapism is a much repeated justification from those explaining why they have travelled to the West End on Friday night to visit one of the few shows open. Only 15 of the 50 or so venues in London’s Theatreland are operating. On a normal Friday night 37,000 people stream into the West End. On Friday, closures and reduced Covid capacities meant barely 5,000 theatregoers made the trip.

Soon even these numbers might seem impressive. On Wednesday ministers will decide whether to place London into tier 3. Theatreland is holding its breath. Tier 3 forbids it from staging shows, which will deal a grievous blow to a sector seen by some as the cornerstone of the UK’s £10.8bn arts sector and a central factor of the country’s cultural power.

Some venues have barely reopened after the November national lockdown. The Apollo Theatre’s production of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, restarted on Saturday. A festive favourite, Pantoland at the Palladium, opened last night. Other shows, scheduled to start this week, may not get the chance.

Yesterday a further 519 people had died within 28 days of a positive test, and there were 21,502 lab-confirmed cases across the UK. The rolling seven-day average of cases has been rising since 27 November.

Julian Bird, chief executive of the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre, said: “Tier 3 just before Christmas really would be devastating. The activity underway would have to close and it costs a lot of money to get productions on their feet.”

Just south of the Sondheim, the first audience for Love Letters is arriving beneath the Theatre Royal Haymarket’s six-columned exterior.

It is Helga’s first trip into central London for 10 months and she admits to feeling torn. “Part of me is very happy to be going to the theatre but I keep asking myself: ‘Should I be here? Is it really necessary?’ Then I think how important it is to support our theatres,” she says.

Thirty minutes later, others join her. Sam Muller, deputy manager of the theatre, peered at the throng from behind his mask. Press night on Thursday had gone well and tonight is a sellout; albeit a socially distanced 200 instead of the 500 capacity.

“It’s great to be back, everyone is delighted,” he says. Many of his staff had been furloughed for long periods from 16 March, much like the other 290,000 theatre professionals in the UK, 70% of whom are freelance. Before the second lockdown, 80% of the theatre workforce were supported by the government’s job retention scheme. What would tier 3 mean for the Haymarket?

“It’s going to be very difficult to deal with. It’ll be very sad,” says Muller.

As far back as June a report projected that the UK’s theatres could lose more than a quarter of their permanent jobs because of the pandemic. Bird said that tier 3 now “would be devastating for individuals. We are mostly a community of freelancers and we’ve no clear timescale of the way out yet”.

Despite the bleakness, many share the view that London’s theatres can endure. Already the gradual return of major productions is being announced. On Friday it was confirmed that a new West End concert version of Come From Away would run from February.

Friday also saw the government unveil funding to help institutions such as the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company survive Covid. But wrinkles remain. Bird said the sector is negotiating with government to create an insurance package to protect productions from huge losses if future restrictions force them to shut.

For friends Joanne Gray and Amy Knight, who have travelled from Worcester to watch Les Misérables – their first theatre outing since Mamma Mia! in January – there was a desperate need for the sector to survive. “The theatre is just such a wonderful experience, totally magical,” says Gray.

But Knight was “gutted” at the number of empty theatres they passed as they walked through the city. It is a sight that might get worse in the days ahead.