Cancellations, costs and chaos: UK theatres grapple with rising Covid cases

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

With infections on the rise in the UK, theatres are contending with the challenges posed by Covid cases among casts and production teams, leading to postponed opening nights, cancelled performances and substantial costs.

Northern Broadsides was forced to cancel performances of As You Like It at the Viaduct in Halifax on Sunday and on three further days this week due to Covid cases, with ticket buyers offered reallocated tickets or a refund. On Monday, Curve in Leicester announced that due to a number of cases among the company of its new production of Billy Elliot: The Musical, performances would now begin on 13 July rather than 7 July. A statement from Curve’s chief executive Chris Stafford and artistic director Nikolai Foster said that valuable preparation time had been lost and the delay would “allow us to make up time in the rehearsal room and ensure we deliver a first-class production for our audiences”. The run has been extended by an extra week and the company are said to now be “fighting fit”.

Last week, a touring dance double-bill at Sadler’s Wells in London was presented two years later than planned because of the pandemic. One of the pieces, Common Ground[s] by Germaine Acogny and Malou Airaudo, was cancelled at the 11th hour because of a Covid case in its company. The tour, which includes a presentation of Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring with dancers from 14 African countries, has been a mammoth undertaking, with more than 2,700 Covid tests administered on its journey so far.

For months, theatres have been allowed to open for full-capacity audiences with restrictions such as social distancing and mask-wearing now lifted by the government. But many theatres are still feeling the financial impact of the last two years, including the effect of cancelling pantomimes during the traditionally lucrative festive period. Many now have emergency loans to repay and rising energy prices to consider. The cost of living crisis is also having an impact on audiences. When a show is cancelled, buyers can choose to donate the ticket price instead of request a refund but several theatres have reported a dropoff in donations since the start of the pandemic.

In Liverpool, the Royal Court theatre has not lost any performances to Covid this year. However, the threat last winter of a new year lockdown led the theatre to delay its January opening to springtime. That means the theatre is only producing six shows this year instead of the usual seven or eight. The empty January/February slot could have generated around £170,000 in box office, said the theatre.

The severe challenges of managing Covid in a touring show have been felt by Finn den Hertog and his partner Vicki Manderson who are the co-directors of The Hope River Girls, which toured Scotland in April and May. Den Hertog tested positive for Covid on the first day of their 10-day rehearsal period so was confined to taking part on Zoom while Manderson and their son isolated from him for fear of it spreading to the rest of the company. Two of their four performers tested positive before they went into technical rehearsals.

Three sold-out preview performances of The Hope River Girls at Tramway in Glasgow were cancelled. “It was hugely disappointing but really our only choice,” said Den Hertog. “We had the performers to consider, as even though they might be testing negative after 10 days, anyone who has had Covid will tell you that you are certainly not back to full health [immediately]. If the last two and a half years has taught us anything it is that people’s health and wellbeing must come first, so sending actors on to perform a show that they hadn’t fully rehearsed would have been an incredibly stressful and anxiety-inducing thing to ask. We all know that the old adage says the show must go on, but not at the expense of people’s physical or mental health.”

One of this year’s most anticipated productions, Alecky Blythe’s new verbatim drama Our Generation, was hit particularly hard by the pandemic. The play, about teenage life in Britain, was a co-production by the National Theatre in London and Chichester Festival theatre. A week of its rehearsals had to take place online when the National shut down last Christmas due to the Omicron variant. Several actors then had to miss parts of the rehearsal period because of isolation rules and some previews were cancelled due to Covid cases among the cast.

At one of the previews for Our Generation, due to the number of absences, Blythe herself went on for one of the actors. Other actors took on extra roles at some performances and the director, Daniel Evans, also stepped in to play a character. Three emergency “swing” actors were added to the company but, even with them, five performances were lost at Chichester because the combination of people who were ill could not be covered. Two of the three stage managers in Chichester also caught the virus.

Eleven performances were cancelled at the National, a potential return of roughly £100,000. Chichester lost approximately £40,000 as a result of their five cancelled performances.