The show can’t go on: Covid tracking app crippling theatres and venues | Theatre
West End theatre and venue managers across Britain are calling on the government to let them rely on regular Covid testing of cast and crew to avoid the “crippling” isolation rules that are shutting shows.
While the lifting of social distancing restrictions in England on Monday will allow capacity audiences back, the live entertainment industry is being pummelled by the Covid tracking system and will not survive the summer, leading voices have claimed. “There are so many shows shut right now because of it,” said Julian Bird, chief executive of the Society of London Theatres and UK Theatre. “It is a kind of ‘closing down by stealth’ when we should be opening up. We are already doing all we need to stay safe, with daily tests and strict cleaning.”
Productions of the big budget musicals The Prince of Egypt and Hairspray, starring Michael Ball and Les Dennis, have been forced to shut because cast members have tested positive or been “pinged” by the Covid tracking app. The curtain has also come down on the new West End magic show Wonderville and on the play Bach & Sons at the Bridge theatre, which stars Simon Russell Beale.
“Of course it is great that in theory we can open fully for the first time in 18 months,” said Bird, “but there are crippling problems. We are talking to government about testing systems for our theatres and for UK Theatre members because venues have been testing everyone all the time anyway, and so are not normal workplaces. We have heavy restrictions in place already because we cannot just bring in other people, as other businesses might.”
Bird said a much-discussed problem of cancellation insurance was still an impediment: “The market is just not writing that insurance. We are hopeful the government will step in on this issue, but it’s not over the line yet.”
Many in the industry are also critical about the confused government messaging that has alarmed potential theatregoers. Writing in the Stage, the industry journal, the producer Richard Jordan has called for legal rules enforcing the wearing of face masks inside an auditorium. The Society of London Theatres and UK Theatre have made a similar plea.
At Leeds Playhouse, executive director Robin Hawkes has warned of “a really confusing picture”. “For many producers it will be impossible to take risks with the prospect of either the changing course of the virus or the changing course of the restrictions, which means suddenly the plug might get pulled,” he said.
The Theatres Trust said it needs time to understand the impact of the new guidance before it can make recommendations. Theatre owners and producers, who have spoken with almost one voice until now, are taking different positions this weekend.
Big commercial venues are largely going back to full capacity to cover the huge costs of mounting productions, while subsidised theatres are often sticking to socially-distanced seating for a few weeks at least. Glyndebourne, the Sussex opera house, will move straight to full houses and is now selling the extra tickets. The National Theatre will return to full capacity from 26 July, while the Liverpool Royal Court is staying socially-distanced until October.
Others, such as the Chichester Festival Theatre will be offering both, with socially distanced performances staged for those with particular concerns put on once a week this month and next. “The move from regulation to recommendation is causing confusion,” said Bird. “We are trying to clarify it but theatre owners and producers realise the pandemic is still very hard to predict.”
The position on Covid vaccination passes or passports is also divisive. While representatives for the night-time industry spoke against their imposition last week, chiefly because they discriminate against young people, theatre managers are more concerned about how to police such a policy front-of-house. “Some customers will be getting some comfort from knowing a venue is using Covid certification,” said Bird, “But the truth is we are not really ‘high risk’ transmission events, under the terms of the results of the government research carried out earlier this year. Watching a show is not the same as going to a nightclub, but there are ethical issues that need ironing out. How do we handle people who have not been advised to have the vaccination? And what do we do if someone turns up with a ticket without a pass?”
For Bird, hope lies in the fact the government does not expect new systems to all be in place this week. High-profile theatres are likely to test out best practice first to advise smaller venues when they accept bigger audiences. Theatres in Scotland and Wales will remain under tighter restrictions, with Northern Irish venues still closed.