The boss of Theatre Royal Plymouth says it could take two years for the business to bounce back from the £10million hit it took during 2020 – but it is unlikely to be curtains for the venue.
Adrian Vinken, chief executive of the UK’s largest regional theatre, said 2021 will still pose a major challenge for TRP, but he is confident there is a programme of shows in the pipeline which will tide it over for the next year at least, provided the building is not ordered to shut again due to any upsurge in the coronavirus pandemic.
That is vital, not just for TRP but for Plymouth and the South West too, with research showing that under normal circumstances it puts £43million into the economy each year.
Since then it has attracted good-sized audiences to its three Christmas shows: The Gingerbread Man, The Thing That Came from Over There and the panto Robinson Crusoe, starring Les Dennis.
This has built confidence that theatre-goers will be willing to return in the new year, although that is not a foregone conclusion.
And with TRP’s main 1,300-capacity Lyric auditorium only able to contain a maximum of 550 socially-distanced punters, it means the business will have to scrape by in 2021, perhaps with more financial help from the Government or Arts Council England.
TRP has already received £1,896,000 from the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund and £400,000 of National Lottery cash to enable it to stage its panto.
But Mr Vinken is at least grateful for the small mercy that the theatre is able to welcome in some audience members.
“It’s wonderful,” said Mr Vinken, who stressed that TRP had adapted well with measures to keep the audiences, performers, and theatre staff safe. “The overwhelming response has been that people feel safe.
“And also there is the joy of being back in the theatre, all three shows are continuing to sell really well, so the appetite and confidence is there, but it is still something we would not take for granted.”
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Mr Vinken said Plymouth was fortunate to have been placed in Tier 2 by the Government, under its post-lockdown restrictions.
He said his counterparts in Newcastle, Manchester, Leicester, Sheffield and at London’s Palladium had all planned Christmas shows only to have them nixed by tighter restrictions.
“We are fortunate to be one of the few theatres that can operate, with three shows and up to five performances a day.”
He said attendances at the Lyric depend on the size of “bubbles that book”, with a bubble being anything from two people to six.
It means that shows have a minimum of 350 and maximum of 550 people in the seats and said: “So we are operating at 45%.”
Mr Vinken said the theatre, which was badly impacted by the lockdowns and forced to shed about 100 jobs, has enough support cash to see it through to April 2021.
He said from then on it will be reliant on a “strong programme” of shows to keep it viable, and is hoping that the arrival of vaccines, and the return to a more normal social life for the nation, will see TRP through the year.
“Until summer it is patchy,” he said. “We will lose money for a period next year and will need a degree of support, but by the end of 2021, provided things unlock we should be on a balanced budget.
“We have a difficult year to get through, financially taxing, but have things in place to enable us to do that.
“But we don’t expect that once the economy relaxes we will go back to the same level of attendances we enjoyed last February.
“We think it will take a year or two to get back to that level, but we will have a base to work from.”
TRP, though its box office and catering, earns about £12million to £14million annually – under normal conditions.
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During 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has cost it about £10million, because of nine-months of inactivity.
Mr Vinken said support from the Government, Arts Council England, and Plymouth City Council, had been vital for TRP’s survival.
“They have been critical for keeping us from insolvency,” he said. “We lost a third of our workforce to redundancy, which was very painful, but all these measures were necessary to get us to this place.
“The economic, social and cultural value the theatre brings to the city, and this part of the world, is important.
“If it closed down it would cost many times more to reopen it, so it was a very sound investment for the long-term health of the city.”
He said an economic impact report showed that pre-pandemic TRP attracted 360,000 people to Plymouth’s city centre annually, contributing £43million in spend.
“If TRP did not exist those 360,000 people would not come to the city centre,” he said. “It is a cash magnet, the arts multiplier effect.
“And it demonstrates to the outside world that this is a vibrant, modern, culturally sophisticated city. When businesses look to invest they look first for a well-skilled workforce, and the next thing is the quality of life, the cultural facilities of an area.
“What TRP and now The Box have given us is a real edge on any city of this size anywhere. And add in the environmental credentials and it has a great set of assets for economic growth.”