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‘Hardest thing I’ve had to do’ - theatre boss hits out at government over lack of coronavirus clarity

PUBLISHED: 06:30 19 March 2020 | UPDATED: 07:51 19 March 2020

Norwich Theatre Royal chief executive Stephen Crocker. Photo: Dave Guttridge/The Photographic

Norwich Theatre Royal chief executive Stephen Crocker. Photo: Dave Guttridge/The Photographic

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The boss of Norwich’s Theatre Royal says the government’s lack of direction over coronavirus has left the industry in “mayhem” and urged it to go further in its support for venues.

A screen-grab of prime minister Boris Johnson (centre) speaking at a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on Coronavirus (COVID-19) after he had taken part in the governments COBRA meeting. Standing with him are Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty (left) and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance (right). Photo: PA Video/PA WireA screen-grab of prime minister Boris Johnson (centre) speaking at a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on Coronavirus (COVID-19) after he had taken part in the governments COBRA meeting. Standing with him are Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty (left) and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance (right). Photo: PA Video/PA Wire

Stephen Crocker, its chief executive, has spoken out in the wake of prime minister Boris Johnson’s announcement on Monday evening, when he advised people to avoid pubs and theatres.

But he stopped short of ordering them to close, a move which has attracted criticism - owners say it has left them in limbo, unable to access insurance to cover the coming months and forced to stay open in order to survive.

Mr Crocker said the theatre had long been planning for a similar situation, but said Mr Johnson’s decision had thrown the industry into “mayhem”.

“We had been very much on top of this,” he said. “By the time we got to Monday afternoon we had a number of scenarios sitting in a drawer. But the nature of the government’s announcement meant we were in a scenario even worse than our worst case scenario.

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“There was such a lack of clarity.”

He said his primary concern is the safety of staff, volunteers and visitors to the building.

“That absolutely comes first,” he said. “We will do whatever we can to combat this dreadful virus. I don’t, though, feel it is necessary to sink an industry in the process.”

He said he heard the announcement, which was made on Monday evening, as 300 guests arrived at the theatre for a performance of Les Miserables.

“I heard it at the same time as the general public - by 5.20pm we had about 300 people in the building,” he said.

Complexities around the organisation of shows - many are run in partnership with a touring company which operates the show in theatres across the country - meant he was not able to immediately make the decision to call it off.

“It took a little while but by 6.15pm we were able to say the safest thing to do among the complete quagmire was to cancel the show,” he said.

“At 6.15pm I walked into our restaurant and had to do one of the saddest things I have ever had to do. I ‘dinged’ a glass and told a restaurant full of excited people they wouldn’t get to see their show.

“The prime minister saying people should strongly avoid theatres put me in a position of making a decision based on public health. That was simply not fair.”

Mr Crocker said he was keen to work closely with smaller theatre companies which he said would be hit harder.

In order for theatres - and similar businesses - to recoup cash via their insurance, the government must order a directive in order for the policy to kick in, which has not been done.

Much of what the theatre will be able to do next depends on whether it is able to access its insurance, Mr Crocker said.

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On Tuesday evening, a second government press conference saw chancellor Rishi Sunak announce a package of measures to ease the strain on businesses, including rate relief.

But Mr Crocker said the measures did not “go far enough”, and that many theatres already benefitted from discretionary rate relief.

He called for a larger cash investment which was more localised.

For now, he said the team would continue planning, as they moved into what he reluctantly described as “the new normal”. Performances will not go ahead until further notice.

“I’m asking first and foremost for the public to have patience with us,” he said. “We have had to say until further notice because like everybody we just don’t know.”

He said they were considering what to do on a show-by-show basis across their three venues - the Theatre Royal, the Playhouse and Stage Two.

“I just really want to plead for customers who have booked tickets just to be patient,” he said.

Mr Crocker confirmed on Wednesday that the organisation’s three buildings would close to the public until further notice, and that staff would contact people who already have tickets.

But he said he had been heartened by the general sale of the theatre’s new season on Wednesday, when people were queuing outside the door.

“I went and greeted them each to thank them for sticking with us and realising we will get through this,” he said.

• To keep up with updates, visit our Facebook group Norfolk Coronavirus Updates.

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