Theatres fear Omicron’s impact on festive season as many ‘Hanging on by our fingertips’

It is the crucial season for theatres when families, schools and panto-lovers traditionally crowd into festive shows and fill venues’ coffers for the year ahead.

It is the crucial season for theatres when families, schools and panto-lovers traditionally crowd into festive shows and fill venues’ coffers for the year ahead.

But this winter, amid rising Covid case numbers and the spread of the Omicron variant, bookings are down and performances are being cancelled at the last minute – and at an alarming rate – due to Covid infections among cast and crew. Theatres have been left “in crisis mode”, “on a knife edge” and “terrified” of what the next weeks will bring.

The producer Kenny Wax, whose hits include the musical Six and the Goes Wrong series of comedies, told the Guardian that “the industry is probably in its most precarious position”, even after almost two years of uncertainty. On Wednesday, Sir Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of the Bridge theatre in London, predicted on BBC Newsnight: “the three weeks of the year on which all live arts and entertainment businesses rely … will be a write-off”. Sarah Brigham, who runs Derby theatre, said that cast illnesses have left artistic directors around the country asking themselves with dread: “When am I going to have to walk on stage with a script?” Natalie Ibu, artistic director of Northern Stage in Newcastle, said: “What we don’t need is more uncertainty and mixed messages [from government] – that just feels like March 2020 all over again. We’ve come too far to find ourselves stuck in Groundhog Day.”

Northern Stage’s production of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice became, on Thursday, one of the latest shows to cancel performances due to Covid cases despite having a range of measures in place to keep the company safe. Ibu said it was “hugely disappointing” and that they hoped to restart performances from 28 December. Cancellations have hit stages and shows of all sizes – from small arts centres to our grandest cultural institutions, local pantos to West End musicals including Cabaret and Hamilton – but with the same loss of vital revenue. Of similar importance is the loss of audience confidence at a time of great uncertainty and mixed messaging when Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, has urged people not to “mix with people you don’t have to” but Boris Johnson has declared people should not cancel Christmas parties.

Ibu said that an enormous amount of work and financial support had gone into reopening theatres and rebuilding audience confidence. “What we need now is clarity to enable us to use that investment in the best way we can for our community.” Brigham added that “clear messaging and role-modelling from leadership would be really helpful. It takes us back to March 2020 when we weren’t told to close down but audiences were told not to come to us.” Certainty and reassurance for audiences and businesses were paramount, she added, not just through strong public health messaging but also strong economic measures. The playwright Mark Ravenhill, now co-artistic director of the King’s Head theatre in London, told the Guardian earlier this week that the next few months “could be the most perilous of all” for theatres. “If this turns out to be a period where theatres are technically allowed to open, but very few people want to go to them, that would be a big financial challenge.”

While many theatregoers have returned to West End shows with enthusiasm, said Wax, there was much greater audience confidence on Broadway where “everyone wears masks in the theatres. It’s the law and they respect it. Theatre owners don’t allow you to take food or drink to your seats so you can’t use the excuse of ‘I’m drinking’ to have lifted or lowered your mask. It has to remain in place.” Mask-wearing in England’s theatres, left up to individual venues to enforce to their best ability for months, has only just become mandatory rather than recommended practice (excluding exemptions). Whether that will reassure apprehensive theatregoers to make their Christmas trips has yet to be seen. Vaccine status and ID, required for theatre attendance in other European countries, are still not a legal requirement to enter most theatres in England and Scotland; Covid passports are required for theatres in Wales and Northern Ireland.

Entire productions around the country have been postponed in recent weeks, such as the Brighton Centre’s Aladdin panto starring Anita Dobson, now pushed back a year due to the uncertainty and risk surrounding the Omicron variant. Coventry’s Belgrade theatre announced on 8 December that members of its Beauty and the Beast company had tested positive for Covid, which meant live performances of the show would be cancelled until 18 December – keeping seats empty for a large stretch of its run. Concern about Omicron has led to people cancelling or moving their bookings, said Brigham. So far just one performance of Derby theatre’s Treasure Island production has been cancelled, after a cast member had a positive lateral flow test, which was followed up with a negative PCR. But the doubt cast over the festive period, which is “when we welcome most people through our doors”, is like a knife edge, Brigham added.

Wax said that one of his West End shows was cancelled on Wednesday “through a combination of positive cases in the company, an actor who reacted badly to his booster and everyone else in the company having to get PCRs”. His company’s other shows “are hanging on by their fingertips” he added. “Our daily sales are significantly down. Thankfully we have very well sold houses between now and the end of the holiday season, but we are terrified of what January and February will bring.”

Ibu said that the financial support Northern Stage has received during the pandemic has allowed them to mitigate risk and plan for worst-case scenarios and the current climate. “But there’s only so long that money can last.” The government’s furlough scheme, cultural recovery fund (CRF) and reduction in VAT had been vital for theatres during the pandemic, observed Wax. “Probably the most straightforward gift from the treasury would be an extension to the [reduced] VAT rate.” Hytner told the BBC that theatres “are in crisis mode” at the moment. “There was a partnership last year with government which involved a huge investment to enable us to recover … we now surely don’t want to get into a situation where the government’s investment last year is wasted because the sectors it has supported collapse in the new year. The mechanisms exist from last year to target support at these thriving industries, all of whom exist on minute margins. We need to see short-term finance, we need to see loans, VAT and business rates looked at again.”

Brigham said that while the furlough scheme and CRF had protected many organisations, independent artists and companies had been left vulnerable as had some of theatre’s vast freelance workforce. “Thinking about the sector as a whole is important,” she said, calling for measures to protect the livelihoods of freelancers as well as the organisations that are grappling with a loss in revenue and a rise in utility bills and inflation. Both Wax and Brigham said that the problem of Covid-related absences among theatre crews was exacerbated by a shortage of stage managers and technicians to take their place as so many people have left the industry in the last two years.

“Theatre has an important role to play as we navigate our way through the personal and global trauma of the last two years,” said Ibu, who hopes Northern Stage’s 2022 season will provide “a place to find refuge in coming together to imagine our way through the messy world we live in right now”.