West End audiences should be allowed back into theatres because they are “a very responsible bunch” and will adhere to the rules, Lord Lloyd-Webber has said.
The impresario and theatre owner claimed that Public Health England (PHE) is blocking attempts to reopen theatres because it believes people will refuse to wear masks in the auditorium.
He warned that theatre is “at the point of no return” and threatened to take his new production, a musical version of Cinderella, abroad if the Government does not announce a full reopening date free from social distancing measures.
Giving evidence to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee, Lord Lloyd-Webber said Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, has been “doing his best” to help the sector.
But he went on: “He’s facing an uphill struggle, not least of which is dealing with Public Health England. Some of the remarks we heard from Public Health England, I don’t even really want to embarrass everybody by saying. He is up against a brick wall not of his making.”
Recalling a visit by PHE to the London Palladium, where he staged a pilot performance earlier this year in an attempt to show how theatres could be made safe, Lord Lloyd-Webber said: “There were some pretty extraordinary things said. One came from Public Health England, who said they had done research in their office and that people won’t want to wear masks in theatres, to which I said, ‘Well, they don’t need to come, do they?’
“What we have found is that theatregoers tend to be a very responsible bunch and I think you would find that people would be very respectful of all the various measures that need to be taken and put in place.”
He highlighted what he saw as the absurdity of strangers being allowed to sit together on planes but not in theatres, and said the air in his venues is purer than the air outside. “It reminds me of something I heard over the weekend: a young man who went into rehab because of alcoholism, came out and discovered that his Alcoholics Anonymouse meetings had been cancelled (due to covid) but he could go to the pub. There are so many anomalies, it’s just extraordinary,” he said.
And he joked: “We did think of turning the London Palladium into a garden centre at one point.”
Lord Lloyd-Webber was joined at the committee by Rebecca Kane Burton, chief executive of his theatre company, who said lockdown continued to be “devastating” for the entertainment industry.
Ms Kane Burton said theatregoers, while not enamoured of wearing masks throughout a performance, would do so “if it takes wearing a facemask to get [theatres] reopened”.
At the weekend, the Culture Secretary launched Operation Sleeping Beauty, in the hope of reopening venues by Christmas.
But Lord Lloyd-Webber suggested that, while producers may be able to pull pantomimes together within that time frame, most big shows will take much longer to restart as they will require greater rehearsal time.
He explained: “With something like Phantom of the Opera, if we got the green light now I would think it just about might get on stage in February or March but not before. A new musical - April or May.
“I have to take the decision about whether to go into rehearsal with my Cinderella or not. If I don’t, there is also the chance that it might open somewhere where people are being a little more helpful.”
A proportion of the £1.6 billion arts rescue package laid on by the Government should be spent on making theatres covid-safe, Lord Lloyd-Webber argued. “There’s no point giving money to buildings just to keep the lights on - it’s a complete waste of money. Some of this money should be directed to getting the buildings open.”
The peer has proposed a “kitemark” system which theatres could display to show they are covid-safe, by installing basic measures such as hand sanitisers, one-way systems and face masks.