Charles Wright: Its theatre scene is blooming but London’s culture sector is still struggling

Charles Wright: Its theatre scene is blooming but London’s culture sector is still struggling

Easter time, and London is blooming. And not just the daffodils in the royal parks. Across the city, culture is blooming too, from the brilliantly exuberant revival of Guys and Dolls at the Bridge Theatre, to the multi-award-winning Oklahoma and Sophie Okonedo’s “formidable” Medea at Soho Place, to the Whitechapel Gallery’s celebration of female Abstract Expressionists and immersive David Hockney at the new King’s Cross Lightroom.

Guys and Dolls (pictured) in particular is a joyous, feelgood show, both a pitch-perfect tribute to and an exciting reimagining of the Broadway classic, powered by star performances, particularly from Daniel Mays, the commanding Marisha Wallace as Miss Adelaide and Cedric Neal with a genuinely show-stopping Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.

With Guys and Dolls and Oklahoma now booking until September (though you’ll have to be quick, given their strings of five star reviews), and plenty more shows coming up, the summer could be good news for a sector which perhaps suffered more than most during Covid.

Both the award-winning Bridge and Soho Place are products of pre-pandemic optimism: when the Bridge’s 900-seat auditorium opened in 2017 it was the first wholly new large commercial theatre in London in 80 years, and the 600-seat Soho Place off Tottenham Court Road, part of a wider £300 million regeneration scheme, is the first new West End theatre to be built since 1973 (it also piggy-backs on that other achievement of what today looks like something of a golden age, the  Elizabeth line, already the busiest railway in the UK).

Now they look to be in the forefront of post-pandemic cultural recovery. And if the crowds at the pubs and restaurants in Borough Market and at the Bridge last Thursday are anything to go by, later heading for trains home from London Bridge, the capital might just finally be on the way to dispelling its Covid gloom.

Sadiq Khan certainly sounds chipper, telling the Financial Times this week that the city recovery is well underway: “I think we’re back. If you look at public transport numbers at weekends, tourism and leisure is back.” The FT was mildly sceptical, suggesting the Mayor was a glass half-full not half-empty sort of person.

Banging the drum for the city is, of course, pretty much part of any Mayor’s job description. But while “half-empty” sounds more akin to those early pandemic predictions of the death of the city than to today’s reality, there are nonetheless some concerning signs for a cultural sector which delivers a major annual contribution to the city’s economy – some £47 billion pre-Covid – and one in six jobs, according to City Hall figures. London may be blooming, but it’s certainly not yet booming.

The Society of London Theatre (SOLT), representing all the commercial West End and major subsidised venues in the capital, was relatively downbeat earlier this year when it published its 2022 figures. Against a “slight, yet encouraging” increase of attendance, up seven per cent on 2019 as more shows came on, revenue was actually marginally down when adjusted for inflation, as costs continued to rise. “While we are seeing green shoots of recovery, we must be aware that theatre makers are facing more challenges than ever before,” said SOLT president Eleanor Lloyd.

And looking at that other major part of the city’s cultural landscape, its great museums and galleries, visitor numbers in 2022 were still well down on 2019 totals, and recovering more slowly than elsewhere, according to the Art Newspaper’s annual global survey released last month.

The British Museum and Tate Modern are still in the top five most visited venues worldwide, yet down 34 per cent and 36 per cent respectively on 2019, with the Victoria and Albert down 40 per cent, Tate Britain down 49 per cent, and the National Gallery doing worst of all, down 55 per cent on 2019, losing almost 3.3 million visitors.

With overseas tourists making up around half of all visitors, the continuing Covid-inspired shortfall, particularly of east Asian and Chinese visitors, is a major factor. In 2019 London hosted almost 22 million visitors from overseas, between them spending £15.7 billion. In 2022 that total was still down 20 per cent for holidaymakers and more for business travellers, according to City Hall’s latest report.

Global cost of living pressures seem to be taking their toll, along with continuing post-Covid nervousness. But there are some specifically UK/London factors too, ranging from the government defunding a major opera house and the HS2 delay debacle (while Andy Byford, who got Crossrail done, is now back in the States getting Amtrak’s high speed programme underway) to headlines about no money for extra capacity on the city’s most unreliable line or for expanding the night tube, and the Met’s recent implosion, with its damaging perceptions of safety.

This isn’t just about tourist spend either. London’s cultural offer is a significant part of an essential mix which is at the heart of the great cities – its “social, commercial, professional, cultural, intellectual and territorial connections,” as urbanist Professor Greg Clark put it recently. These combine to fuel the investment which, “levelling up” notwithstanding, remains so important for the whole of the UK.

Nurturing that mix will take more than City Hall boosterism, given an underpowered mayoralty which still controls just seven per cent of the tax raised in the capital compared to some 50 per cent in New York. Otherwise, as has happened with London before, it may be more than the theatre and museum businesses that suffer.

Photo of Guys and Dolls from Bridge Theatre website

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