The show must go on in London’s West End, but for how long?
Britain has yet to formally announce a ban on public gatherings, and thousands packed the historic theaters on Friday, snatching what may be their last chance to enjoy a memorable night out for some time.
“You can’t always stay at home, and I have my gel to keep my hands clean,” joked John, a slightly nervous Tina Turner fan as he took his seat for the London musical about the U.S. singer.
“I trust the authorities and scientists who said theaters can stay open,” said one elderly ticket holder, who had come to see “Tina” to celebrate 50 years together with his wife.
Nearby, people queued in front of the Lyceum Theater’s Greek colonnades for a showing of “The Lion King,” including a dozen people gathered around a young woman carrying a “30-years-old!” balloon.
Britain has been criticized for not following other European countries and banning large gatherings, with government advisers arguing that prematurely rolling out measures could do more harm than good.
But the government is expected to take the next step on Tuesday, a move that will send the sector into crisis.
“The coronavirus pandemic could deal a ‘hammer blow’ to the [British] music industry” the industry organization UK Theatre recently warned in a letter to the Culture Minister.
“It will hit not just those who are directly employed in our industry, but the wider supply chain such as caterers and other retailers who depend on our sector for work,” it added.
‘Millions at stake’
Around 15 million people annually take in a West End show, according to official figures, resulting in box office revenue of more than 765 million pounds ($1.2 million, 1.1 million euros) over the 19,000 performances.
Elsewhere in the entertainment sector, Britain’s Cineworld cinema chain, the second largest in the world, saw its stock price collapse last week, reflecting growing concerns that the outbreak presented it with an existential threat.
The releases of the new James Bond film and the sequel to the family hit “Peter Rabbit” (2018) have already been shelved and many operators and studios are struggling to find a way through the crisis.
“There are millions at stake,” said one producer.
Authorities in New York have already closed all Broadway shows, and a similar move in Britain would lay waste to months - or even years - of work, hitting theaters with a loss in revenue that cannot be recouped.
In an attempt to reassure ticket holders, West End theaters installed disinfectant gel dispensers everywhere and banned backstage visits.
But the outbreak was already beginning to bite on Friday as restrictions on international travel, particularly a ban on flights from the United States, threatened the tourist dollar.
“I was afraid that my plane would be canceled, especially after Trump stopped the flights,” explained Frenchwoman Alyzee Ganiou, 27, who nervously tapped her phone while waiting for a friend minutes before showtime.
The famous Sadler’s Wells Theatre issued a rallying cry for the industry, saying that “during times of uncertainty and anxiety, theater can provide a welcome opportunity to cheer up and escape.”