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Life is a cabaret – until Covid brings down the curtain on the West End

As Omicron variant rips holes in casts and productions daily, theatres are forced to cancel shows – despite £30m support fund

Last modified on Sat 25 Dec 2021 11.15 EST

Just over a year ago, Anna-Jane Casey was forced to abandon the Covid-shuttered West End to deliver hundreds of parcels in a second-hand van. She was overjoyed to find herself back on stage this Christmas in one of theatreland’s most star-studded and critically acclaimed shows: Cabaret.

But productions are at the mercy of Omicron, with the highly transmissible Covid variant ripping holes in casts and backstage staff daily, so Casey’s triumphant return to the West End has been put on hold.

Cabaret had to come off [last week] because there are about four to five cast members ill,” she said from her home in Kent. “It’s hit so many different departments: the dressers in the wardrobe department … our automation and sound and lighting. We’ve got a lot of cases across the board – and we’re a new production so the understudies aren’t ready to step in yet.”

Cabaret – which stars Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley in a revival of the 1960s musical about the Nazi-menaced nightlife of the Weimar republic – is not the only theatrical casualty of the wave of infections sweeping the capital. Last week more than 70 performances of 31 shows were axed, including Moulin Rouge, Mamma Mia! and Matilda.

“Up until about four days ago, 2021 was rocking along just fine. But we seem to be back where we were last year,” said Casey, who has appeared in shows including Chicago and Billy Elliot. “Producers are losing money hand over fist. Our producers are being unbelievably generous and paying us while we are not working but I don’t know how long that will last.”

One of the few unscathed West End shows is Pride & Prejudice* (*sort of). But the play’s producer, David Pugh, fears for the theatre industry because the costs of daily testing and recruiting backup staff are mounting while audiences are staying away. Last week, the production lost £22,000. “Our running costs are increasing but our audiences are dipping. We’ve sold out but we are playing to about 35% of our audience,” said Pugh, who has won two Tony awards in the US and four Olivier awards in the UK. “We are all running out of money. Our box offices don’t reflect our increased costs. That is terrifying.”

It costs £62,000 a week to stage Pride & Prejudice, including salaries and theatre rental. “With the additional staffing and all the extra PCR testing, it has gone up to over £65,000 a week. Audiences are rightly expected not to mix in groups. But we have to keep going because there is no insurance.”

The government-backed insurance scheme for live entertainment only covers shows closed by lockdowns – it does not pay out if actors or production staff catch Covid. Only a few dozen, mostly commercial conference companies, are thought to have used the scheme. “We all looked at it and went ‘no’ – there is nobody [in the theatre sector] using it,” said Pugh.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak last week announced a £30m top-up to the culture recovery fund to support museums, cinemas, and theatres to cope with the impact of Omicron. “We really welcome it. But when you divide it up by the many, many people that have suffered, I’m not sure whether it’s going to be enough to stop some companies going into liquidation,” said Pugh. “When this happened before, there weren’t as many shows on. There must be 100 to 150 pantomimes in the country and they have every right to apply to the scheme.”

The uncertainty is taking its toll, after the prime minister refused to spell out new restrictions for England before Christmas – unlike the Welsh and Scottish governments. Casey said no one involved in live entertainment could plan for the future. “It is unbelievably stressful,” she said. “There’s a lot of anxiety for people who work in any kind of live entertainment at the moment.”

Casey, who plays the tragic but chilling nightclub dancer, Fraulein Kost, in Cabaret, is desperate not to go back to delivering parcels, which she and her husband were forced to do last year to pay their mortgage and provide for their children. “We did about eight months of deliveries from the start of the summer to December,” she says. “I hope I never have to do that again. Not because I am workshy. But it was quite a toll on myself and my husband’s mental health. It was quite disheartening. It was not what we trained to do and love to do.”

The stakes are high for an industry that adds billions to the British economy. Arts and culture contributed £10.47bn to the UK economy in 2019, employing 226,000 people.

“New productions will not be developed if the risk is all on the producers,” said Casey. “We’re getting to the point where an industry that we’ve had for hundreds of years and is world-leading is going to be thrown away because we don’t have a workable insurance policy.”

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