Andrew Lloyd Webber has pledged to reopen his theatres without social distancing later this month “come hell or high water” – and is prepared to be arrested for it.
In an exclusive interview with The Telegraph, Lord Lloyd-Webber said his theatres were suffering “acute financial stress” that could only be alleviated by fully reopening, which he was willing to do even if the Government delayed ending Covid-19 restrictions.
He also said he might have to sell his six West End venues; had remortgaged his London home; and claimed he had seen scientific proof that coronavirus was not spread in theatres.
Cinderella, Lord Lloyd-Webber’s first new musical in six years, is reliant on selling tickets for all seats to recoup its £6 million investment when previews begin on June 25, ahead of its world premiere three weeks later.
Lord Lloyd-Webber’s defiant stance puts him on a potential collision course with Boris Johnson, who is under pressure from scientists and senior ministers to resist removing all lockdown restrictions on June 21, the date set out in his road map.
Downing Street is awaiting more Covid data later this week before making a decision, to be announced on Monday, on whether the reopening in England will happen as originally envisioned. The Telegraph understands that laws enshrining the Covid restrictions are expected to expire at the end of the month as planned, but there are fears they could be simply replaced with highly restrictive guidance.
On Tuesday, there were 6,048 new Covid cases, with the number of cases in the past week rising by more than 60 per cent to 38,679. Amid concern over the Indian, or delta, variant, guidance to minimise travel and only meet outdoors was extended to cover the whole of Greater Manchester and Lancashire – a total of 5.7 million people.
Lord Lloyd-Webber, 73, told The Telegraph: “We are going to open, come hell or high water.” Asked what he would do if the Government postponed lifting the lockdown, he replied: “We will say: ‘come to the theatre and arrest us’.”
The composer insisted he had seen scientific proof that theatres did not spread coronavirus and threatened legal action against the Government if the Prime Minister did not stick to his road map.
Cinderella, with an ensemble cast of 34, is only commercially viable if capacity is dramatically lifted. Under current laws, West End theatres can only operate at 50 per cent capacity.
“I’ve seen the science from the tests, don’t ask me how. They all prove that theatres are completely safe, the virus is not carried there,” said Lord Lloyd-Webber. “If the Government ignore their own science, we have the mother of all legal cases against them. If Cinderella couldn’t open, we’d go: ‘Look, either we go to law about it or you’ll have to compensate us’.”
Lord Lloyd-Webber said that there was a real risk that he might have to sell some of his theatres
Theatres were able to partially reopen from May 17 but socially distancing measures have left many of the bigger theatres making losses. It is currently costing Lord Lloyd-Webber £1 million a month to keep his six theatres closed and he has remortgaged his townhouse in Belgravia in central London to finance his theatrical empire.
A former Conservative peer, who retired from the House of Lords in 2017, Lord Lloyd-Webber took a swipe at the Prime Minister for failing to offer sufficient financial support to the theatre industry. “Unfortunately, the Government regards theatre as a nice thing to have rather than a necessity,” said Lord Lloyd-Webber, adding: “I don’t know Boris at all. He has shown no interest in getting in touch.”
But the impresario did admit that last year, a source in government had sent him a “coded message” informing him of the impending lockdown, enabling him to inform staff at his theatre company of the “doomsday scenario” being put in place.
Asked if might have to sell some of his theatres, if the Government did not allow full reopening, Lord Lloyd-Webber said: “There is a real risk of that.
“I will fight to the last ditch to prevent that happening but no one can deny that there are foreign buyers sniffing around who would quite love to have these [theatres] as trophy assets. They call them bottom-feeders, don’t they?”
Under government rules, theatres and other indoor entertainment venues can stage performances with audiences of up to 1,000 or 50 per cent of capacity – whichever is the lower. In the case of Gillian Lynne Theatre, which will stage Cinderella, that equates to no more than 650 people for each performance if restrictions remain after June 21.
Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, told colleagues on Tuesday that if he were a “betting man” he would “bet on a relaxation” of England’s Covid-19 rules on June 21, according to the Huffington Post.
However, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, indicated that the easing of lockdown could be delayed while officials work to produce “critical” data on the impact of the Indian variants on hospitalisations.
“Astounding” success of vaccines show they are almost as effective against Indian variant
Just three people hospitalised with the variant had had both jabs, the Health Secretary said on Monday.
Mr Hancock said an assessment by Public Health England setting out a “conclusive figure” was “absolutely critical” and should be available “in the forthcoming couple of weeks”.
Health officials said it was not yet clear whether that figure would be ready in time for Monday, when the Government is expected to make its assessment.
There are understood to be particular doubts about the plans for nightclubs to be allowed to reopen, with concerns about Covid spreading on packed dance floors.
However, ministers still hope that, if the data allows, the law enshrining the current lockdown rules will expire at the end of the month as planned.
That legislation limits the number of people who can gather in a group to six people or two households indoors or 30 people outdoors.
However, some MPs and industry figures fear that even if the legal requirements are lifted, a web of stringent guidance could be put in its place, encouraging people to act as if in lockdown.
Already the Government is telling people not to travel overseas to amber list countries, despite it being allowed within the laws and the rules.
Official guidance urging people in Covid hotspots to meet outside if possible and minimise travel in and out of the area was extended on Tuesday to Greater Manchester and Lancashire.
Mark Harper, the Tory MP who chairs the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group, told The Telegraph: “At the moment I can see no reasons why we should not proceed with reopening on June 21 as planned.
“But if ministers come to a different conclusion, then they should be straightforward, clear and honest with the public about what the rationale is for delay and not try to use smoke and mirrors with guidance.”