Theatre pubs 'stepping into the unknown'

By Emily Hawkins

- Last updated on GMT

Impossible to reopen: one publican said he felt there was 'no light at the end of the tunnel' with theatre lovers reluctant to return
Impossible to reopen: one publican said he felt there was 'no light at the end of the tunnel' with theatre lovers reluctant to return

Related tags Theatre Coronavirus

Theatre pubs are facing an existential threat as the possibility of reopening this summer looks slim, operators have told The Morning Advertiser (MA).

Mark Bennett runs the Smoke & Mirrors theatre pub in Bristol, which counted visitors to the city as a substantial proportion of those coming to watch its burlesque, comedy, and magic acts pre-lockdown.

However, the operator is not alone in feeling that his business will not be viable under social distancing and that many customers will not return even without restrictions.

“We have become very famous for our theatre, being the number one on TripAdvisor, beating the big boys, for a little pub is really nice," he told MA​. "Eight years of work - then Covid-19 popped in and shut us down.

“Now we are pacing up and down the pub right now, going 'where can we put everything?', 'how are we going to get the numbers in?', 'how are we going to do this?'”

Bennett’s theatre seats 48 people, with a cabaret style layout for people to place drinks on tables. He said with a 2m restriction he would not be able to open at all while a one-metre restriction would see him reopen with a reduced capacity of 20.

Staying shut

Bennett said: “Yes, I am a pub but not one of those pubs where you go walking by and go 'oh can we have a pint', people come to us because of what we do, and if I can't do that, I'm going to stay shut.”

The operator said older punters will be less eager to venture back to live entertainment venues, even when restrictions are lifted.

“We still don't know how many people we have lost. We definitely would have lost those over 50, they won't return for a very long time,” he said.

The Smoke & Mirrors theatre pub offers comedy and magic shows
The Smoke & Mirrors theatre pub offers comedy and magic shows

Bennett predicts he will lose out on much-loved performances, with comedians who travel to preview their Edinburgh Festival material put off by the hit to takings with reduced capacity.

“Ok some comedians will be quite over the moon to have 20 people in a comedy club, but our comedians rely on the door take for their money for them to travel to come here," he explained. "They will say ‘I can't even afford my train ticket now, it's pointless me coming.’”

Confidence issue

Operator Damien Devine, who runs the Old Red Lion theatre pub in Islington, north London, agrees that his venue’s destination element means it faces a precarious future. 

“We’re quite a mixed pub in the sense we have regulars, office goers, people who live in the area, but first and foremost people come to watch theatre," he explained.

While his theatre hosts 40 people, with two-metre distancing in place capacity would be reduced to nine or ten - making it “impossible to open”. 

Devine said even with social distancing restrictions abolished customers would be hesitant, given the intimate nature of fringe theatre.

He said: “You could be the greatest lover of theatre, you could be desperate to go see something, but think 'I can't sit in any environment like that. I'm 55 or something, a bit chesty, and that's just nuts.' Just like a lot of people won't go on public transport."

The operator fears for the quality of theatre in the capital too. “If you're paying more money you're less likely to take a risk on a production. It tends to be safer and cautious, which traditionally is not what the fringe is about, it's about the opposite." 

Reopening the pub means facing the weight of deferred costs and bringing staff back from furlough, with no guarantee that the previous trade from office workers in nearby Angel will ever return.

Leap of faith

“I’m stepping into the unknown," Devine added. "You put the equation together and it’s pretty painful. It's a blind leap of faith.

“I can’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

East-London based pub Ye Olde Rose and Crown is among those to launch a crowd-funder, with operators saying they “need the community to catch us before we fall.”

The Walthamstow theatre pub said it needed around £30,000 per month to pay wages and rent during the closure period, before even factoring in the costs of reopening later down the line.

Around 100 top names in the arts sector - including Phoebe Waller-Bridge, James McAvoy and Andrew Scott - said theatres across the country face closure without urgent Government intervention, in an open letter to ministers this week.

The letter called for emergency financial support to protect jobs and safeguard the future of opera, dance and theatre businesses.

It stated: “Without government investment, theatres will be forced to close and may never return. The threat of British theatre being destroyed by accident is as real as it is bleak. It would not only be a spiritual tragedy but an economic one.”

Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowde said a roadmap will be put together soon which could allow live performances. However, the enclosed nature of theatres means they will be among the last venues to reopen and many large theatres in the West End have said they will remain closed into the new year.

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