There was devastating news for West End theatres today when Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons that London – plus parts of Essex and Hertfordshire – would move into Tier 3 from 16 December 2020.
Hancock said that there had been “sharp exponential rises in the virus across London, Kent, parts of Essex and Hertfordshire. “We have to take swift and decisive action, which unfortunately is absolutely essential to control this deadly disease while the vaccine is rolled out… And we know from painful experience that more cases lead to more hospitalisations, and sadly the loss of more of our loved ones.
“Our NHS is straining every sinew to cope with the pressures, as they always do, but if cases continue to double, even they will be overwhelmed. So we must act now to shift the curve because when the virus is growing exponentially, there is not a moment to spare. We are therefore acting ahead of the formal review date [16 December].
“We have therefore decided to move Greater London, the south and west of Essex, which includes Basildon, Brentwood, Harlow, Epping Forest, Castle Point, Rochford, Maldon, Braintree and Chelmsford. Along with Thurrock and Southend-on-Sea Borough Councils. And the South of Hertfordshire, which means Broxbourne, Hertsmere, Watford and the Three Rivers Local Authority, into Tier 3, which is the Very High alert level.”
The news is a huge blow to venues, producers and theatre-makers who have worked so hard to open productions in Covid-secure environments in recent weeks. West End shows shutting their doors on 16 December will include Six at the Lyric Theatre, Les Misérables – The Staged Concert at the Sondheim Theatre, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie at the Apollo Theatre and Pantoland at the London Palladium.
Julian Bird, chief executive of Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre, said in a statement: “Today’s Government announcement placing London in Tier 3 from Wednesday is devastating news for the city’s world-leading theatre industry. The past few days have seen venues beginning to reopen with high levels of Covid security, welcoming back enthusiastic, socially distanced audiences.
“Theatres across London will now be forced to postpone or cancel planned performances, causing catastrophic financial difficulties for venues, producers and thousands of industry workers – especially the freelancers who make up 70% of the theatre workforce. We urge Government to recognise the huge strain this has placed on the sector and look at rapid compensation to protect theatres and their staff over Christmas in all areas of the country under Tier 3 restrictions.”
Other statements published including those from producers Cameron Mackintosh (Les Miserables – The Staged Concert at the Sondheim Theatre), Michael Harrison (Pantoland at The Palladium), Louis Hartshorn and Brian Hook (The Great Gatsby at Immersive London) and Sonia Friedman (The Comeback at the Noel Coward Theatre).
“The sudden volt face by the government in deciding to immediately put London into Tier 3 and shut down the West End is devastating for both the theatre and the economy. Even worse it smacks of panic and makes all our considerable and costly efforts to ensure the safety of both performers and audiences alike, widely praised by the health authorities, seem worthless – breaking any sense of trust between us as an industry and the government departments we’ve been trying to build a rapport with.
“The commercial theatre has had virtually no support from the Treasury, apart from the offer of quite expensive loans – which we, unlike the subsidised theatre, have been asked to give personal guarantees to repay. A lot of us do not want to go into debt to pay for losses caused by diktats completely out of our control. The constant changes of rules and advice we have received is impossible for any business to react to. A private company behaving like this would be subject to legal charges from its investors. Yet the government seems to play with our rights and liberties with impunity.
“We have almost 100 mostly self-employed performers and staff working on Les Misérables – The Staged Concert at the Sondheim Theatre. At a stroke, this government has tipped them into unemployment just in time for Christmas – Bah Humbug to the Prime Minister and the men in white coats.
We will have to disappoint thousands of patrons over the next few weeks who were booked to safely see Les Mis over the holidays. We intend to continue performances in January as soon as we are allowed to and demand clarity of a date as soon as possible. Where is the leadership this government promised? All we have is empty words and empty chairs!”
“We are devastated by today’s news that London will move to Tier 3, forcing the closure of Pantoland at The Palladium.
“We are deeply concerned about the economic impact of today’s decision for businesses in the West End and believe that we have done everything possible to ensure a Covid-secure environment within The London Palladium for our audiences, following all advice from Government. Whilst the safety and health of our visitors, staff and performers is of extreme importance, the Government’s yo-yoing approach on advice is frankly appalling.
“It is not possible for any business to function in an environment where our leaders seem to have simply no idea how our country will look from one week to the next. The advice is bordering on incompetent.
“Pantoland at The Palladium opened to rapturous standing ovations, and we saw a reaction from the audience like nothing we’ve experienced before – such was their delight to be back in the theatre seeing live performance. We were honoured to welcome Royal and Government guests at our special key worker performance on Friday.
The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture Media and Sport, Oliver Dowden, saw for himself the rigorous safety measures in place at the London Palladium and I was thrilled to see him crying with laughter, it’s just a shame my entire cast and company are now crying because of the Government’s decision to put London into Tier 2 just 12 days ago, encouraging us all to press on with our productions, only to realise that was in fact a mistake. One of many, many mistakes.”
Louis Hartshorn and Brian Hook
“This is a hammer blow to an industry which has been fighting valiantly to bring culture and community to people’s lives this Christmas.
“The Government has created a situation where millions of pounds have been spent on re-launching productions and shut them down just as revenue is about to be generated, leaving even more organisations in extreme financial difficulty and putting jobs for permanent staff and freelancers alike at even greater risk. Further financial support is essential to avoid yet more high profile casualties in the theatre industry.
“Our productions of The Great Gatsby and Doctor Who: Time Fracture will continue as planned when the new restrictions lift, as we stand by our principles of protecting employment and providing enriching cultural experiences designed to be fit for these difficult times.”
“The Comeback performances from 16 December onwards have been postponed. Having installed extensive safety measures at the theatre, for the last week of previews we have been welcoming delighted audiences to the Noel Coward Theatre to enjoy this brilliant, funny and heart-warming show. They have left the theatre uplifted, energised and reminded about the power of theatre and the vital role it can play in the mental well-being of the community.
“To have that so abruptly, cruelly and illogically ripped away is heart-breaking. Not just for those audiences but also for the entire company of performers, creatives, stage crew and other freelancers who for so long have been without work. They all now face yet more uncertainty and pain.
“But let me be clear –The Comeback WILL be back. It is our intention to resume performances as soon as government restrictions allow. Once the new dates have been finalised, the box office will automatically transfer ticket holders’ booking and ticket(s) across to the closest equivalent performance within the limited run; and will contact patrons with all the new details.
“The new dates will be confirmed in the coming weeks. For now, I would like to recognise our entire team for their ongoing support. And, of course, especially our audiences, for your continued commitment to both our production and to our great British theatre.
“London going into Tier 3 is yet another blow for British theatre – one it simply cannot afford after a brutal year, and one that both could and should have been avoided.
“All the effort and energy, not to even mention the expense, of reopening shows safely has once again been undercut by a decision that will devastate our industry and its freelance workforce – many of whom have still not received any government support and now face a further loss of employment. All this despite not a single case of infection being linked to a theatre anywhere in the country.
“Theatres and producers, who have collectively lost over £1 billion in revenue since March, now face millions of pounds of additional losses and continued uncertainty for the coming months, destroying confidence in the sector that we have worked so hard to rebuild. Commercial producers – the sector’s biggest employers and largest economic contributors – have received just 0.8% of the £1.57 billion Cultural Recovery Fund.
“This latest closure under Tier 3 underlines – unequivocally – the urgent need for a government-backed insurance scheme, as already provided to film and television, for meaningful compensation to mitigate impending losses incurred by productions forced to close, and for targeted support for freelance workers unable to take advantage of the furlough scheme.
“This feels like a final straw: proof that this government does not understand theatre and the existential crisis it is facing. Its short-sightedness is starting to look like serial mismanagement.”