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What does a delay to reopening mean for theatres and is Andrew Lloyd Webber going to jail?

Update: the ‘Cats’ maestro will not be doing bird or letting the PM buy him off

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski

Update: Andrew Lloyd Webber will not be going to jail. But nor will he allow the government to buy him off with special treatment for ‘Cinderella’. In a furious statement released Friday 18, four days after Boris Johnson indicated Webber’s new musical might be allowed to open at full capacity as part of a special pilot scheme, Webber finally issued a statement, which said:

‘I confirm that I cannot and will not take part in yet another pilot scheme around the reopening of theatres, as suggested by the Prime Minister on Monday. I have made it crystal clear that I would only be able to participate if others were involved and the rest of the industry - theatre and music - were treated equally’.

Instead, he has confirmed that ‘Cinderella’ will begin its run by selling at a socially-distanced 50 percent capacity until the rules change (currently due July 19). This is in marked contrast with his recent declaration that he would go to jail rather than operate under social distancing (see below), declaring that:

‘Having taken legal opinion from senior counsel, if we had gone ahead at 100 percent it would be very likely that every member of my cast, crew and orchestra, the front and backstage staff, plus our loyal audience members, could be individually fined hundreds of pounds, which I couldn’t possibly risk.’

We could probably have told him that anyway, and fair play to the Lord, who will shoulder the financial losses himself. He also apologises to those ticketholders who will no longer be able to attend on their booked dates: 

‘For our audience who have booked tickets to our show, I can only apologise. We will be in touch as soon as we can to explain what this might mean for you. I appreciate all of your ongoing patience and understanding. Rest assured, come hell or high water, we will get you to the ball.’ 

Boris Johnson has today announced a delay to full reopening in England, an increasingly inevitable decision that prompted headlines last week when Andrew Lloyd Webber said that he’d rather go to jail than delay the reopening of his theatres. Here’s all you need to know about the current situation.

Aren’t theatres already open again? What’s the story here?

Like cinemas, theatres have been able to reopen with social distancing since May 17. However, many shows and theatres had been holding off their reopening until after June 21, because the 50 percent capacity cap required by social distancing would cause many shows to lose money. This is more of a problem for commercial producers (ie the West End) who haven’t been able to access the same amount of government support that subsidised theatres have.

So how prepared are London’s theatres for a month’s delay to full reopening?

As a rule, they’re really well prepared. Some shows – notably ‘Under Milk Wood’ and ‘After Life’ at the National Theatre – will remain socially distanced throughout their runs regardless. Most others took to heart the government advice that June 21 was not set in stone and have adopted a ‘suck it and see’ approach, wherein they have plans to raise the capacity and put more tickets on sale, but will only do when they’re officially allowed to. And many of the bigger West End shows – be it classics like ‘Les Mis’ and ‘Hamilton’ or newies like ‘Frozen’ and ‘Back to the Future’ – have cautiously held their openings back until the end of the summer, or even further. 

Okay, so it’s not a big deal?

Theatres have had a terrible pandemic, and another month of diminished income will be a real kick in the teeth – especially as the furlough scheme requires greater employer contribution from July – while delays of much longer than a month would potentially be devastating. However, in a prosaic sense: although nobody wanted it, almost everybody in theatre was prepared for a delay, and nothing has yet been cancelled as a result of the delay.

Almost everybody? Did Andrew Lloyd Webber not say that he would be prepared to go to prison rather than not open his theatres at full capacity?

Yes, he did say that. His new musical ‘Cinderella’ and his old musical ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ are both scheduled to start performances within the period of delay, and neither is selling socially distanced tickets. Lloyd Webber has maintained that he will sue the government to allow them to open, and whatever the outcome of said suing he will open them anyway, going to jail if need be.

Wow. Er, does he have a point?

He has famously spent a lot of money tricking out his theatres with god-tier air filtration systems and self-sterilising doorhandles and whatnot. A recent UCL study has found that capacity theatres are safe for masked audiences so long as correct safety measures are observed. However, it still seems ridiculous that the government would allow exceptions on those grounds, given the fury this would surely provoke in basically everyone else not allowed to open. 

But didn’t Boris Johnson say ‘some theatrical performances’ would be allowed at full capacity at his press conference about the delay? And indeed didn’t he single out ‘Cinderella’?

He did! He really did! Nobody has clarified any of this yet, but as best as we can tell from what the PM said, the government is looking to make the entire run of ‘Cinderella’ a pilot scheme exempt from distancing. Whether any other shows or theatres are included is unknown. As a minimum, it would certainly feel incredibly unfair if open-air theatres like the Globe were forced to distance still. 

So what is actually going to happen?

We don’t know!

Lloyd Webber has stated that he is prepared to keep his theatres open at full capacity in defiance of the law. Fair enough, but there are big questions around this: notably, who actually attends an illegal Andrew Lloyd Webber show? Would the cast and crew also be prepared to break the law? Is it really worth the fuss when it could open on July 19 anyway? Why did the show’s Twitter account tweet a rather demure reference to ‘being in touch with our ticket holders’? To be honest, him getting arrested is such a mad outcome that it’s hard to believe it will really happen. But still, you have to assume that he would break the law.

Regarding the PM’s shout-out to ‘Cinderella’, Webber put out a statement after the press conference saying he was ‘pleased and surprised’ it was mentioned, but that he can’t comment ‘on the proposed pilot until I know more about the scheme’.

This doesn’t really sound like a man giving off big fuck-the-government-I’m-going-to-jail vibes, but he doesn’t actually rule it out, and a tweet from the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish regarding a to-be-published interview with Webber suggests that he’s taking the line that it can’t just be his shows that get special treatment. So in conclusion – yes, Andrew Lloyd Webber might still go to jail. But probably don’t put money on it. 

‘Cinderella’ is due to start performances on Jun 25. ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ is due to start performances Jul 1.

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