Covid cases force London theaters to cancel shows

The UK theater industry faces an increasingly difficult recovery despite the end of Covid-19 restrictions, with a number of West End shows forced to cancel performances due to government isolation rules.

Cinderella doesn’t go to the prom: she doesn’t even leave the house at all.

Music theater boss Andrew Lloyd Webber has canceled the first two nights of his high-profile new musical ‘Cinderella’ in London after a cast member tested positive for Covid-19. The rest of the cast and crew are now advised to self-isolate.

In a seething statement on Twitter, Lloyd Webber noted that the “impossible conditions created by the blunt instrument that is the government’s isolation directive mean we can go no further”. The “lives and livelihoods of hundreds of people” would be affected by the decision, he claimed, adding: “Friday has turned into closing day.”

‘Cinderella’ is the latest theater casualty of Britain’s Covid-19 tracking system, which is forcing entire productions to stop because one person has been “pinged” by the Covid tracing app or tested positive. In England and Wales, where the NHS app works, people get warnings – or ‘pings’ if they’ve been in contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19.

Ridiculous to think that 60 healthy cast and crew from Cinderella are at home this morning and can’t go to work because of suffocating & unworkable government policy.

A series of cancellations has coincided with the UK easing all Covid-19 restrictions on July 19 – dubbed “Freedom Day” by the British press – and a number of productions are unable to take advantage of the new rules allowing them to fill seats to capacity.

‘Russian Roulette’

“The thing with theater is you spend all the money before you open it and get the money back once you open it,” explains Paul Virides, an independent theater producer based in London. “People spend a lot of money getting these shows up and running and then have no way of getting that money back.”

After nearly 16 months of closure, theater organizations also want the government to put forward rules — which will come into effect on August 16 — that fully vaccinated people who have come into contact with someone who has Covid only need to self-isolate if they test positive themselves.

Currently, anyone who has come into contact with someone with Covid must put themselves in isolation, even if they test negative afterwards.

Some of the London West End productions that have been forced to cancel performances include blockbuster musicals ‘Hairspray’, ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ and ‘The Prince of Egypt’, as well as The Globe’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

Unfortunately, despite very robust procedures, today’s matinee performance of The Tempest has been cancelled. One of our acting company is unable to perform this afternoon due to Covid-19 isolation requirements. (sequel)

The current guidance puts enormous pressure on the cast and crew, says Neil Laidlaw, one of the lead producers of ‘The Prince of Egypt’. “It’s like every day Russian roulette is waiting for people’s test results,” he explained.

The high-budget musicals London’s West End is known for employ extensive backstage staff in various departments, from stage management and props to wigs and wardrobe – with cast members circulating between them. That makes the risk of coming into close contact with someone who tests positive for Covid-19 even greater.

“The offstage staff has grown over the years as more technology is used in the theater today. All automation on stage needs more people. All it takes is for one of those people to be pinged and the whole performance to go down,” Virides said.

A financial tightrope

Such was the case for ‘Wonderville’, a magic and illusion show that was forced to postpone opening night.

1/5 Despite the extremely robust measures in place, we have had to postpone our opening tonight after a member of the team tested positive for COVID-19. Performances now start on Wednesday 21 July with a new gala opening on Monday 26 July. FURTHER INFO in the comments. pic.twitter.com/t3MfFp5FGb

“Financially, the consequences for us are catastrophic,” said Stephen McGill, a producer on the show, who notes that if customers don’t rebook tickets, production companies will have to pay refunds from the exhausted box office.

“Because we don’t have Covid insurance, unlike film and TV, we don’t have protection,” McGill said. ‘We are walking on a tightrope. We have already lost a weekend and now have five weeks to try and make up for the deficit.”

The Society of London Theater and UK Theater estimate that the sector is economically affected between £507 million and £725 million annually [€589 million – €840 million]. Industry associations such as the Performing Artists’ Union Equity have urged the government to purchase insurance in the event of cancellations.

The show must go on – but at a price

‘The Prince of Egypt’ is now preparing to return to the stage on Wednesday after a 10-day isolation period for cast and crew. Laidlaw explains that they had to lay off staff for those 10 days to cut costs.

“It’s terrible to have to do to people,” he says. “We have a lot of overheads that don’t stop during that period, and we’re literally losing hundreds of thousands of pounds in lost cash register sales.”

The “Friday Day” end has been marred by a surge in coronavirus cases fueled by the highly contagious Delta strain. In addition, many younger cast members have not yet been vaccinated, as Covid-19 vaccines were only offered to people under 30 at the beginning of June.

Many theater groups fear that the number of cancellations will only increase if the number of cases continues to rise in the summer.

“As the cases increase, contact with someone who has the virus will increase. It’s a cycle,” Laidlaw said.

Trade organizations in the theater sector are sounding the alarm about the devastating impact of recurring cancellations on the arts, with press releases and public letters to the government taking on an increasingly desperate tone.

The Society of London Theater recently warned that the theater industry was at risk of market failure.

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