Coronavirus: Culture secretary hints at theatre bailouts as job cuts bite

Oscar Williams-Grut
Senior City Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
The government is examining special measures to support the UK’s ailing theatre sector. (Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden has said the government is examining special measures to support the UK’s ailing theatre sector, as West End grandees warn the industry is “on the brink of ruin”.

Dowden said during the daily Downing Street press briefing on Wednesday he was leading discussions about possible targeted support for the performing arts.

“I continue to have discussions across government to see what further support we can give theatres during this challenging time,” he said.

It came as the culture secretary admitted it would be “exceptionally difficult” for theatres to reopen on 4 July as the government had initially suggested. Most operate on “wafer-thin” margins that rely on “lots of people packed in” to make a profit, Dowden said. This model is simply not possible given the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I know particularly with the performing arts and theatres, when you are doing that in a confined space there are greater risks there,” Dowden said.

Culture, Media and Sport Secretary, Oliver Dowden: 'We may be looking at some time before theatres to be returning to a state where they can perform extensively.' (PA Video/PA Images via Getty Images)

The culture secretary said he was “bringing together our leading performers in theatres, choirs and orchestras with medical experts and advisers” to try and work out a solution. But he admitted it would be “immensely challenging” to overcome the risks and stressed theatres could only reopen “if the public health allows it”.

“We may be looking at some time before theatres to be returning to a state where they can perform extensively which is why I’ve been discussing what other support we can provide them with,” the minister said.

The comments came hours after legendary West End theatre producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh announced he was cancelling all productions of Les Misérables, Mary Poppins, Hamilton and The Phantom of the Opera until at least 2021. Staff on all these productions face redundancy.

West End theatre producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh announced he was cancelling all productions of Les Misérables, Mary Poppins, Hamilton and The Phantom of the Opera until at least 2021. (Matt Crossick/ EMPICS Entertainment/Getty)

“Despite the government engaging with the desperate pleas from everyone in the theatre industry, so far there has been no tangible practical support beyond offers to go into debt which I don't want to do,” Mackintosh said in a statement.

“Their inability to say when the impossible constraints of social distancing will be lifted makes it equally impossible for us to properly plan for whatever the new future is. This has forced me to take drastic steps to ensure that I have the resources for my business to survive and enable my shows and theatres to reopen next year when we are permitted to.”

He called the decision “heart-breaking”.

Separately, over one hundred leading figures from theatre land have written to the government warning that the industry is “on the brink of ruin”. The open letter, provided to the Guardian, warns that 70% of UK theatres could run out of cash by the end of 2020, with many facing financial ruin before the end of the year.

“Without government investment, theatres will be forced to close and may never return,” it said.

Signatories to the letter include Tom Stoppard, Trevor Nunn, Andrew Scott, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, as well as actors union equity and industry bodies representing the theatre, comedy, and musicians.