It should have been a night to remember and the moment that Andrew Lloyd Webber basked in the spotlight, soaking up the applause of a full West End house of more than 1,200 people. Monday was the press night for his new musical Cinderella.
For the first time since March 16 2020, theatres have been allowed – under Step 4 – to remove social distancing. But instead of seeing his long hard slog as a campaigner for theatre during the pandemic and his perseverance as a composer come to fruition, on Monday evening he was found on stage in front of an empty auditorium at the Gillian Lynne theatre, off Drury Lane, issuing an impassioned aria of indignation aimed at the Government.
After two suspended performances on Saturday, on Monday afternoon it was announced that the show – at the erstwhile home of Cats – has been suspended until the end of the week, at the minimum, as a result of one cast member testing positive for Covid-19. Under the current rules regarding close contact that entailed self-isolation for so many of the 30-plus company as to make continuing unviable.
An exasperated and borderline tearful Lloyd Webber – the most gung-ho theatre establishment figure thus far – warned that Cinderella could not go on now and faces an uncertain future, given the huge knock-on effects in terms of costs. “I am determined to get Cinderella open here. There are voices saying ‘Come on, forget Britain, do it on Broadway’. I’m not going to do that but who knows when we will open here? 2084? There comes a time when we simply won’t be able to go on, there does come a time, we are pretty much at that point.”
“Every single member of the cast has been double-tested, none of them are positive apart from [that] one person. I felt that with the guidelines as they are at the moment, we simply couldn’t go ahead. The theatre can’t carry on like this.”
Lloyd Webber with the cast of Cinderella
He continued: “I’m thinking of our audiences. Yet again we’ve had to say to a whole load of audiences this week ‘Sorry we can’t perform’. It’s untenable.
“What I can’t get to grips with is that this Government does not seem to understand that theatre is the lifeblood of our cities. Every other country seems to have done so, America has grasped this. It’s not just about our actors, it’s about all the people who depend on us, it’s the taxi drivers, the restaurants, the dry cleaners. It’s an endless list and they don’t seem to understand that theatre is a huge revenue earner.”
He added wearily: “I have tried and tried. I have held pilot events, we have demonstrated how theatres can be safe. This building has 100 per cent fresh air, the best ventilation system you can find. I’d like to make one last plea to them: we can’t go on like this. Theatre is now on its knees, there’s no way forward.”
In the last week, theatre has been left reeling under the so called ‘pingdemic’. The major new magic show at the Palace Theatre – Wonderville – was postponed for similar reasons. Kenneth Branagh’s Riverside Studios staging of The Browning Version in August has been cancelled because there was so much interruption to rehearsals.
There was a full crowd at the Royal Albert Hall on Monday night to celebrate its 150th anniversary
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Last night Lloyd Webber revealed: “I’ve just heard that one other major show is now not going to be opening on schedule, though I can’t say what it is.”
“Just allow us to get on with our job. There has been a plea from [the union] Equity for us to reopen on Monday but we cant function with this system. It simply does not work. I’m saying this from the heart, ‘Please will this government listen to us?’”
Referring to the PM and the Chancellor’s mixed messaging about self-isolating at the weekend, he railed: “They seem to career around with no coherent policy. It seems to me is that the Government doesn’t put in the hours. I would like to offer them one last chance to show that they do care about the theatre. Let them sit down with us immediately, and if we can demonstrate that we are safe to proceed they should allow us to proceed. It’s no good waiting to [mid] August – it has gone beyond that now.”
As for the proposed exemptions outlined on Monday for workers from certain industries deemed ‘critical’ (including power and food supply), he argued: “It would be helpful if he [Boris Johnson] had a look at theatre and could consider whether we could be exempt too. If we could demonstrate that we can open safely, it should be possible.” He didn’t sound hopeful. “I think they just think theatre is something nice to have. They don’t have a clue what its real economic value to the country is.”