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What Omicron means for London’s winter theatre season

Can the industry hold up until it’s over?

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski

Further update: it’s impossible to keep up with the volume of closed shows, although it’s worth noting that a) plenty of shows are still open b) the reduction in isolation time to seven days will mean some shows will come back sooner. One outlier worth noting, though, is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Cinderella’ (pictured), which has closed until February 9, the only West End show (to date) to simply try and wait the omircron wave out. There has been a generally hostile reaction to the government’s latest support package, which has been particularly criticised for offering no support for the freelance workers that constitute the bulk of the industry.

Update: since this article was first written, way more shows and theatres have been affected. Although there is thus far still only a single production (‘The Rhythmics’) that has had its run meaningfully cancelled (a couple of shows nearing the end of their runs did finish early), many theatres (the Royal Court, two of the NT’s venues, Soho Theatre, the Globe’s indoor playhouse) have simply elected to pause performances for a while. Most major London shows including pretty much everything in the West End are forging ahead as usual, but at any given time several shows are out of action. It’s an increasingly grim state of affairs at theatre’s busiest time of year: with no government support package, almost nobody can afford to cancel, much at the might want to. Many shows are now demanding Covid passes on the door or a lateral flow test beforehand, but it’s a difficult time with no real end in sight beyond the hope that boosters and Omicron’s likely rapid rise and fall will allow us to come out the other side sooner rather than later. A post-Christmas ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown seems like it will inevitably close the theatres. For now, though, if you’re planning on going to the theatre, definitely double-check beforehand that the show is still happening, though they should contact you if there’s any sort of cancellation.

A good informal indicator of the covid levels in London at the moment is the number of theatre shows that are being forced to delay – or worse, close – as a result of the virus’s rising prevalence. 

Unfortunately, that number is a lot, harking back to last March – when numerous shows shut before the theatres were formally closed because cast members were forced to isolate – or this summer – when there was less Covid around, but the ‘pingdemic’ was cutting swathes through shows with large casts.

Last week one of the biggest shows of the year, ‘Moulin Rouge!’, was forced to cancel for a few days and abandon its press night in the face of enforced isolation of cast members. Deep pockets enabled them to fly out cover from the US and performances have resumed, but even so it won’t be opening until January (if that’s possible).

And sadly it’s not the only one. The National Theatre’s big Christmas musical ‘Hex’ has had its opening put back a week due to an outbreak, the Donmar’s Rory Kinnear-starring show ‘Force Majeure’ cancelled last night and may face bigger disruptions pending a PCR result, the Lyric Hammersmith’s ‘Aladdin’ and the RSC’s Barbican ‘Comedy of Errors’ have been forced to cancel shows up until December 23, and a fringe musical, ‘The Rhythmics’ has been forced to cancel its entire run at Southwark Playhouse.

I’ve also anecdotally heard that pre-Christmas bookings have become very soft, with dropout rates high: people are understandably wary about going to the theatre in the run-up to Christmas given it's the worst time of year to be forced to isolate.

What does it all mean? If Omicron is as transmissible as it’s supposed to be, it’s difficult to see how sheltered from it any shows can realistically be: expect more cancellations. Optimistically, it may have run its course relatively soon, especially if the government’s ambitious booster jabs targets are met. But it’s clearly going to be a very hard next few weeks, and at present there seems to be no additional government support forthcoming if a theatre was, say, forced to close for the duration of January. Unlike the late spring and early summer, shows are no longer socially distanced, and it’s difficult to see how they could switch to socially distanced set ups at short notice. For an industry already financially devastated by the last two years, it’s going to be another very difficult time.

Christmas theatre shows in London.

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