Royal Albert Hall boss notes huge drop in sales since spread of Omicronon December 17, 2021 at 2:17 pm

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Craig Hassall calls for “a stronger government position” to help the struggling theatre industry.

Royal Albert Hall

The boss of the Royal Albert Hall has said the venue has seen a huge drop in sales since the spread of Omicron.

Craig Hassall, chief executive officer of the historic London hall, is calling for “a stronger government position” to help the struggling arts industry.

Equity, a trade union for performing arts workers, has written to the chancellor requesting financial support for those affected by cancellations.

Shows across the UK are being cancelled and postponed due to Covid outbreaks.

They include West End hits The Lion King and The Life of Pi, as well as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice at Northern Stage, Jack and the Beanstalk at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, and The Book of Mormon at the Palace, Manchester.

Hassall told the BBC: “Our Christmas sales were doing tremendously well until Omicron hit and then they absolutely plateaued and we are seeing a huge drop in sales.

Craig Hassall is CEO of the Royal Albert Hall in London

Image source, TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

“We’ve lost one show actually, but nothing beyond that. I know that the West End is really suffering from people with Covid, crew and so on, losing shows.

“We’ve been OK, touch wood, but the impact on sales is certainly being seen across our season.”

Last week, face coverings were made compulsory in most indoor venues in England, under measures to tackle the new variant. People across the UK have also been advised to limit social gatherings, in the run-up to the festive period.

Hassall added that he thought the government advice on the matter has been “a little bit cloudy and a bit vague”.

“In terms of the Royal Albert Hall, we’re not covered by Plan B because of our capacity. And yet we’ve asked people to wear masks and we have asked people to show their Covid status, and people are very compliant and very happy to do so.

“But I think a stronger government position would help people feel more confident to come out to places like the Royal Albert Hall, where they can feel safe and we know that people out will be safe in a place like ours with our cleaning regimes or ventilation protocols.

“But the government advice has been a bit woolly I’m sorry to say and that’s not really helping things.”

The Lion King

Image source, Getty Images

In response, a spokeswoman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) told the BBC: “Our unprecedented £2bn Culture Recovery Fund has given out £1.5bn in grants and loans, and almost £200m to the devolved administrations. The £300m third round of the fund is still open for applications, providing vital ongoing support for the cultural, heritage and creative sectors.

“We will keep the delivery of the programme under active review and consider how best to adapt it in line with the needs of the sector.”

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has also urged organisations in need of support to apply to the fund for assistance.

‘Lost income and profit’

Ray Spencer, who plays Dame Bella in the pantomime Rapunzel at the Customs House Theatre in South Shields, Tyneside, told BBC Newcastle the production was “20% down on what we’d normally expect at this time”.

“A lot of that has been schools, and organised parties from factories, shops, guilds, WIs (Women’s Institutes) haven’t come in the numbers they’d normally come,” he said.

Spencer, who is also the executive director of the theatre, told reporter Fergus Hewison: “So, bottom line – that means in excess of £90,000, probably near £100,000 of lost income and eventually lost profit.

“What we do at Christmas, like many theatres – pantomime – is a third, or 40% of people’s turnover. So to lose that sort of percentage is a massive blow for all the work that we do which is reliant on what we make for Christmas.”

He added that if social distancing were to be introduced, it would be “a disaster”.

“If we were to close again, we don’t have the sort of reserves that we would like to have to be able to carry the building, which still has its overheads,” he said. “We would hope that the government could find some assistance to support organisations and everybody else forced to close.”

Cinemagoer in face mask

Image source, Getty Images

Jamie Eastlake is the owner of the N16 theatre company, which is rehearsing for its production of Cinderella at a bar in Blyth in Northumberland. He told BBC Newcastle a fairy godmother – or some cash from the chancellor – is needed to save theatre at the moment.

“Bookings are falling through the door, we’re having cancellations left, right and centre. We have staff ill, we’ve had actors drop out, we’ve had to push productions back. The word nightmare doesn’t really sum it up at the moment.

“We thought it was the ultimate nightmare being close down but this year seems to be even worse. There’s a huge hole coming to us, we know that, and I think a lot of organisations know that as well.”

He said their quietist time of year was between January and March, and that it would be “incredibly difficult” to fill the financial hole left by Covid without “some level of support”.

‘Crisis mode’

The calls for support come after theatre impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber said no-one in the government listens” to the fears of those within the theatre industry, which he describes as being “decimated”.

On Thursday night, his production of Cinderella was cancelled due to “Covid-related absences”, as well as performances of hit musicals Hamilton and The Lion King in London.

“It has been a terrible few days and it is getting worse,” Lord Lloyd Webber wrote in the Daily Mail. “It is simply heartbreaking for me to see our industry decimated by a situation beyond all of our control.”

On Wednesday theatre director Sir Nicholas Hytner called for greater support for struggling entertainment and arts venues.

The former artistic director of the National Theatre told Newsnight on Wednesday that venues were closing as actors and crews were coming down with Covid.

Bookings, he noted, had “fallen off a cliff”.

“We are in crisis mode at the moment,” he said “We now surely don’t want to get into a situation where the government’s investment last year [the Cultural Recovery Fund] is wasted because the sectors that it has supported collapse in the new year.

“We need to see short-term finance, we need to see loans, we need to see VAT looked at again, we need to see business rates looked at again.”

Kasabian at the O2 Academy, Bournemouth, UK. 28 October 2021

Image source, Charlie Raven/Alamy Stock Photo

Elsewhere, Cabaret, featuring Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley, has axed some shows at London’s Playhouse Theatre, while the The National Theatre has cancelled certain performances of Hex, based on the classic fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, and The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time.

Jon Morgan, director of Theatres Trust said that while new government advice, urging caution around gatherings, “did not directly affect theatres” there had “already been an impact on ticket sales and theatres are finding themselves in a precarious position”.

“Like the hospitality sector, the theatre sector will need additional economic support to help it survive this latest challenge,” he added.

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