Andrew Lloyd Webber: “We must reopen the art sector”

Andrew Lloyd Webber says he is confident the air inside his theatres is cleaner than it is outside as he pleaded with government to give his sector a date to reopen properly.

The impresario warned that the arts sector is “at the point of no return” as London’s Royal Albert Hall made a plea for £20m in donations to help it weather the impact of Covid-19.

Speaking to MPs on the digital, culture, media and sport committee, Lloyd Webber said he had been trialling measures at the London Palladium that could allow the theatre business to return after a production of Phantom Of The Opera was able to continue in South Korea with strict hygiene measures and no social distancing.

He told MPs: “I’m absolutely confident that the air in the London Palladium and in all my theatres is purer than the air outside.”

Giving evidence alongside other key arts promoters, Lloyd Webber said theatres needed funds to reopen safely and turn a profit with socially distant audiences.

Even a forthcoming musical version of Frozen, the hit Disney film, would struggle to break even, he said, saying: “Disney would be lucky to make their investment back on that show for two or three years. The margins are incredibly tight.”

He claimed a Public Health England official visiting the London Palladium told him that people “won’t want to wear masks in theatres”. He disagreed: “Theatregoers tend to be a very responsible bunch. People will be very respectful of all the measures.”

He added: “There comes a point when we really can’t go on anymore. Theatre is an incredibly labour-intensive business. In many ways putting on a show now is almost a labour of love. Very few shows hit the jackpot in the way a Hamilton, Lion King or Phantom Of The Opera do.”

He added that theatre shows were “not like cinema, you can’t just open the building”, estimating that a production like Phantom Of The Opera would take “between three or four months” to get up and running again. “We simply have to get our arts sector back open and running. We are at the point of no return really,” he said.

Asked about his final message for the government, the theatre boss said: “Give us a date”.

Lucy Noble, the artistic and commercial director of the Royal Albert Hall, which is holding its annual proms concerts without an audience, told MPs 80% of its staff were on furlough.

There were “huge consequences to venues not being able to put performances on … serious financial consequences … all venues are on their knees financially,” she added.

On Tuesday the venue in Kensington, west London, called for donations totalling £20m to help it weather the impact of Covid-19.

It has lost £18m in income, refunded more than £6.5m in ticket sales and exhausted its reserves in the six months since closing its doors in March, according to the chief executive, Craig Hassall.

The Royal Albert Hall was not eligible for an emergency grant from the government’s £1.57bn arts rescue package, and had been advised to apply for a loan which, if successful, would arrive in December.

Later, Melvin Benn, the managing director of Festival Republic, a UK promoter of festivals including Reading and Leeds, Download, Wireless and V, told MPs that festivals were impossible with social distancing.

Testing could be the solution, he said: “In June, I published a report or a plan, the Full Capacity plan, which was based on testing people before they arrive at the festival, or before they arrive at the event.”

He said it was about creating a space where everybody attending had been tested and had “tested negative in order to get an entry, therefore are unable to transmit the virus to other people because everybody in the place is tested and clear. It gets rid of the need for social distancing”.

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