West End theatres bank on staging a revival with big-budget productions
Britain’s biggest theatre owners are banking on new big-budget productions including Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella, Disney’s Frozen and Back to the Future to stage a post-pandemic comeback but a change in theatregoing habits could spell the end of the midweek matinee.
The UK theatre industry has been hit harder than most by the pandemic, with details of a highly criticised government-backed coronavirus insurance scheme finally published this week, taking almost 18 months longer to come to fruition than a similar safety net for the multibillion-pound UK film and TV industry.
This has not stopped West End theatre owners taking the risk to invest millions of pounds in pushing ahead with new big-name productions and reopening fan favourites.
In the three weeks since the government relaxed the rules around self-isolation for those who have had two vaccinations, the West End has got its mojo back, with productions including Cinderella, Frozen, Back to the Future, Hamilton and Mamma Mia! opening.
Over the next two months theatregoers will be spoilt for choice as crowd-pleasers including Moulin Rouge, Life of Pi, Matilda, Wicked, the Book of Mormon, Only Fools and Horses and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child open their doors.
“The level of excitement and the opening response from audiences is phenomenal,” says Nick Allott, the vice-chairman of the Cameron Mackintosh group, the producer of shows including Les Miserables and Hamilton, and which owns eight West End theatres. “Opening nights are like the Rolling Stones or the Beatles coming back. People are excited.”
However, Allott admits that theatre owners continue to “slightly hold their breath” over whether the worst is over, and there is bitterness across the industry over the failings of the new government-backed insurance scheme.
While theatres were given the green light to reopen with 50% capacity restrictions in May and normality beckoned when social-distancing rules were scrapped on 19 July, the subsequent “pingdemic” forced the closure of a number of the limited range of shows that chose to open, prompting an industry-wide scheduling rethink.
“It has been a struggle, a real battle over the last 18 months,” he admits. “We wanted an insurance scheme that mirrored what the film and TV sector got last summer. A lot of producers took the risk without this insurance. The government scheme doesn’t work for theatre due to the cost and limitations. For example, we aren’t covered if a production is forced to close if cast or crew get Covid, only if the government forces another shutdown.”
For theatregoers, the behind-the-scenes drama is a side story as week after week attendance numbers continue to climb.
The producers of Back to the Future said its preview performances in August were at 99% capacity and the show has been making 97% of its “gross potential”.
Colin Ingram, the producer of BTTF and the Grease UK tour, says: “We are riding a wave of pent-up demand. Our audience sit in an area where they should have saved something over the last 18 months, they are people with money in their pockets, and they want entertainment and a live experience.”
Asked whether or not the early sales mean BTTF is a guaranteed success, Ingram says it is a “risky business; I’ll tell you in six months’ time”. Commercial viability depends a lot on how long a show runs, the longer the better, and theatreland has an audience demand problem.
While domestic theatregoing is booming, as staycations and pent-up demand fuel the addition of extra Sunday matinee shows, the almost total lack of the crucial international audience because of travel restrictions is making for the biggest shake-up in production scheduling history.
“There has been a significant change to performance scheduling across the West End,” says Matt Highfield, the head of accounts and new business at Dewynters, the theatre and live events marketing agency. “We are looking at fewer midweek matinees until the midweek crowds return and there has been an increase in Sunday performances.”
After discussions with unions, theatre staff and performers have forgone the sacrosanct additional pay for doing extra performances on a Sunday, and in return, some Monday, and often Tuesday, performances have been dropped. As for the midweek matinees, they have always been most popular with international tourists – currently all but nonexistent.
“Dropping Wednesdays is something we are considering,” Ingram says. “When we looked at the schedule at the beginning of this year, when you have to start planning, we deliberately didn’t put Wednesday matinees in [guaranteed] because we knew it was going to be difficult.”
Allott adds: “Until we get proper air corridors opened between the UK and the US, Asia, Scandinavia, big points of tourism interested in the West End, thing are going to be quite tough.”
In the meantime, theatre owners are for the most part taking a conservative approach on the health front, asking theatregoers to go beyond the now relaxed government guidelines such as mask wearing. LW Theatres, the owner of venues including the Adelphi in London, where Back to the Future is playing, is checking one in every five theatregoers for either a double vaccine certificate or lateral flow tests. Others are checking more, some not at all.
“We continue to run protocols in the West End in excess of government guidance,” Allott says. “But for operational reasons [coronavirus status] checking is intermittent, not universal. The industry needs to agree a standard practice. Theatre is back and we are fighting hard to keep it back.”