ArtsTheatreUK News

Not so Misérable after all?

London’s Theatreland has borne the brunt of the Covid-19 restrictions. But West End historian Stephen Hoare has spied some green shoots of recovery

The West End is a sad place right now…

Symptomatic of the distress, The Sondheim in Shaftesbury Avenue, which, until March, played host to Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, has for months barricaded its glass-fronted foyer with a massive poster that says, “We’re Mizzing You But We’ll Be Back Soon”. The surrounding streets and restaurants and bars of Piccadilly and Soho are either closed or a quarter full, robbed of that all-important pre-theatre trade. Miserable, indeed.

I confess to having a special interest in this as I am writing a history of Piccadilly, the heart of London’s Theatreland. Sadly, my occasional forays to the West End have been like visiting a graveyard where out-of-date advertising posters for iconic West End shows memorialise to fallen shows like Tina Turner, etc.

Getting theatres and arts venues up and running is an urgent priority the government appears to have overlooked until very recently. The announcement on Monday 12th October by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden of an immediate £257 million rescue package for over 1,300 venues, will enable many theatres and cultural organisations to start planning for future reopening. Those that are viable, at least.

Nowhere is this slim lifeline more needed than in London’s Theatreland. The West End’s night-time economy is a like a coral reef whose cornerstones are the thirty-nine theatres concentrated around Shaftesbury Avenue, the Strand, Haymarket and St Martin’s Lane. In happier days they drew in the crowds with star-studded musicals, comedies, serious drama, experimental theatre and classical drama – something for all tastes.

If one part of the reef fails – if the theatres close for good – then the knock-on effect will be the devastation of the West End economy – hotels, pubs, cinemas, restaurants, clubs, luxury stores, souvenir shops and much more. These are not just any old local businesses they represent London’s multi billion pounds tourist industry. If one part fails, it could take years, possibly decades, to recover.

In 2018 there were more than 15.5 million attendances at West End theatres alone. More than six major theatre groups like Delfont Mackintosh, The Ambassador Theatre Group. Nimax and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s LW Theatres own, operate and maintain historic and architecturally listed buildings. History is at stake too.

It needed a plan. Andrew Lloyd Webber ploughed £100,000 into making his Palladium Theatre COVID secure enabling him to run a one-off experimental socially distanced performance by Beverley Knight and her band back in July. Predictably, it failed to live up to its billing. Critics panned the show as rows of empty seats made for a lacklustre experience that lacked sparkle, proving that “live” performances depend on that all-important rapport between the audience and the actors on stage. Lloyd Webber wrung his hands in desperation. “The theatre could become extinct” he asserted. He was not joking.

Undeterred, West End theatres have decided to stage a comeback. In the absence of any clear government guidance, theatre owners are staking everything on being able to re-open safely and on being able to tap into a pent-up demand for live entertainment. Six theatres including the Fortune (Lady in Black), the Apollo Theatre (Everybody’s Talking About Jamie), and The Aldwych (Tina: The Tina Turner Musical) are open for bookings. Others are taking bookings for July 2021.

For the past fortnight I have been receiving regular alerts from theatres who hold my details on their mailing lists telling me about forthcoming productions with available dates, online booking, and, importantly, a guarantee that if by some remote chance fresh restrictions intervene then I will be given priority booking at the earliest opportunity.

The long-awaited “track and trace” app and the QR code has been a game changer. Other steps such as the wearing of masks, social distancing, temperature checks, one-way routes and the minor irritation of not being able to order drinks in the interval have reassured keen theatre-goers like myself.

Julian Bird, chief executive of the Society of London Theatres and UK Theatres, has welcomed the government announcement of significant investment in nearly 1,400 organisations including West End theatres. “It is warmly welcomed and will help create work and retain jobs,” he said.

In spite of the government’s £1.57 billion culture recovery fund, of which the rescue package announced on 12th October is only the first tranche, the scale of the pandemic will inevitably bring casualties. Uneconomic theatres will close and with the sizable gig economy workforce of freelance lighting technicians, sound engineers, production staff still out of work, any meaningful recovery will have to wait until late into next year at the earliest.

But at least it’s good news for fans of “Miz”; the show indeed will be back. From 14 October, the Sondheim theatre will be taking bookings for a short Christmas season from 12 December to 17 January 2021. An all-star line-up led by Michael Ball, Alfie Boe, Carrie Hope Fletcher and Matt Lucas and fifty actors and musicians will make the show a Christmas must-see.

So, here’s to a revival of West End theatre. In the midst of all the fear, the uncertainty and the tedium of watching box sets on TV, we need livening up.

We need Miz!

Photo credit: Delfont Mackintosh Theatres

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Stephen Hoare

Ten years ago, Stephen Hoare, a freelance education and business journalist working for The Times and Guardian fulfilled a long-held ambition to study for a masters’ degree in the history of London at Birkbeck College. With a growing reputation as a historian of London, Stephen has recently written a witty take on the hidden world of power and privilege, Palaces of Power: The Birth and Evolution of London’s Clubland, published in 2019 by The History Press. Stephen lives with his wife in a Georgian house in central London and is currently working on a sequel, Piccadilly, The Pursuit of Pleasure.

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