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Lunchbox Theatrical: The inside story of how a global empire came crashing down

James Cundall (centre) with actors Leandra Ashton and Paul Hawkyard at the press launch of Shakespea
James Cundall (centre) with actors Leandra Ashton and Paul Hawkyard at the press launch of Shakespea
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Under chief executive James Cundall, Lunchbox became a global powerhouse, with partners including the RSC and Really Useful Group, as well as pop-up Shakespeare theatres at two UK sites. Then it all went wrong. Giverny Masso investigates how the multimillion-pound business collapsed


In April, a group of journalists assembled in rural Oxfordshire for the grand launch of a pop-up Shakespeare theatre at Blenheim Palace. We were taken on a tour of the stately home’s magnificent grounds, and treated to scenes from Shakespeare along the way – from Bottom leaping out from a bush to an impassioned monologue by Lady Macbeth.

The tour culminated in an epic sword fight on a large patch of grass where the pop-up theatre would be assembled within a Shakespearean ‘village’ of food and drink stalls. The 900-capacity structure was to be the second temporary venue to open under the umbrella of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, first launched in a car park in York in 2018.

Cast members Dyfan Dwyfor, Alexandra Dowling and Alexander Vlahos with producer James Cundall of Lunchbox Theatrical productions, at the media launch for Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre 2018

The driving force behind this bold vision was James Cundall, chief executive of global producer Lunchbox Theatrical Productions. This was the first time many of the journalists at Blenheim that day had heard of Cundall or Lunchbox, despite the company being an international presenter for some of the world’s biggest musicals – including Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, War Horse and Matilda. It has presented huge shows in countries from Australia and New Zealand to Malaysia and the Philippines. But, despite Cundall hailing from Yorkshire, Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre was its first major project in the UK.

At the launch, we heard from Cundall, a self-styled “impresario”, who once told New Zealand news website Stuff: “It’s a quaint word and one that is, perhaps, going out of fashion as there are not many of us in the world.”

He introduced himself as a descendant of actor Henry Condell, who published the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays, before rather grandly claiming: “This year we’re doing eight shows: four in Yorkshire, four here… We’ll probably be the biggest Shakespearean company in the world.”

While a few doubts crept in at the time – how would the venue attract an audience and would they be put off by the lack of easy access via public transport and a 20-minute taxi ride from Oxford station? – Cundall’s charismatic presentation offered an exciting vision.

The first iteration of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre had reportedly been a success in York the previous year, winning local awards and claiming attendances of 80,000 people. What could go wrong?

Five months later it all came crashing down. Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre went into liquidation following “unsustainable losses” from its summer seasons. A spokesperson for the company blamed the “economic uncertainty created by Brexit”.

More than 70 actors and crew left owed thousands following collapse of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre

Then it came to light that Lunchbox had also cancelled a season of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda in Hong Kong in September, as well as a season of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre’s productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth in Manila in the Philippines.

But that was only the beginning of the company’s troubles. In October, Equity reported that more than 70 actors and backstage workers claimed to be left thousands of pounds out of pocket following the collapse of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre. This was from unpaid wages, holiday pay and, perhaps most concerning, employer and employee pension contributions. Actors told The Stage that pension contributions had been subtracted from their payslips but not paid into their pension pots. Previously, a spokeswoman for Lunchbox said the company was working with liquidators to “obtain clarity on the situation regarding pension contributions”.

One performer said: “I was incredibly angry. The way these things seem to work is: [the business director] walks away scot-free [but] the business goes down the drain. I don’t know the ins and outs, but I’m sure James Cundall is still riding around in his fancy vintage sports car.”

Following a run in Singapore, Lunchbox Theatrical Productions’ planned Hong Kong run of the RSC’s Matilda in September and October was abruptly cancelled.

Still, while extremely damaging for all those involved, few realised that the collapse of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre was just the tip of the iceberg.

Following initial coverage of Shakespeare’s Rose, The Stage was approached by a group of producers of some of the world’s biggest theatre shows. They claimed to be collectively owed more than £5 million by a series of companies run in different parts of the world by Cundall under the umbrella of Lunchbox Theatrical Productions.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group, the National Theatre, international producer GWB Entertainment, Australian promoter TEG Dainty and global company Base Entertainment claimed they were collectively owed the money across tours of four productions.

The alleged debt relates to Cundall’s international work on The Phantom of the Opera in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Cats in Manila and Kuala Lumpur, the RSC’s Matilda in Singapore and the National Theatre’s production of War Horse in New Zealand and Australia.

The £5 million sum is claimed to consist of a mixture of box-office income, running costs and royalties. However, many believe the debts could be even higher, though full details are yet to be revealed. Cundall has at no point denied that Lunchbox owes these debts.

Jessica Koravos, president of the Really Useful Group, which worked with Lunchbox on The Phantom of the Opera and Cats, accused Cundall of “exploiting developing markets” by using business practices that would have been “completely unacceptable in the UK”. She was referring to the practice of taking money from the box office before shows have opened, as well as the fact that Cundall set up a new company shortly before his other UK companies went into administration.

She added: “The scale of what he has done shows such huge disregard for the livelihoods of thousands of people who were employed on these productions in good faith, often in places very far from home.”

Exclusive: UK-based international presenter of Phantom, Cats, War Horse and Matilda faces £5m debt claim

Who is James Cundall?

A farmer’s son who was born and raised in Yorkshire, Cundall originally qualified as a chartered surveyor and worked for a firm of estate agents. He then moved into a career in finance, working in private banking in Australia and New Zealand before becoming chief executive of the Asian/Japanese business of Rothschild Asset Management.

He once told the South China Morning Post how his background in finance had helped his success in theatre. “Any fund manager will tell you that the job is about risk management and wealth creation, and that’s very true of my business now. Everything I ever learnt in management, I use on a daily basis. And bizarrely, I use the skills I learnt as a farmer’s son every day.”

According to Koravos, his banking background meant that when Cundall moved into international theatre producing, “people had a level of comfort with him, because he was British and because everyone knew he was a banker”.

Cundall has previously spoken of an interest in theatre from a young age. At the launch of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, he told an anecdote about trying to audition for the role of one of the three witches in a school production of Macbeth – he lost out on the part to Stephen Fry. He has also spoken of making a foray into cabaret in his younger years with a former girlfriend, who reportedly told him when the relationship ended that he would make a better producer than performer.

Cundall set up Lunchbox Theatrical Productions in Hong Kong in 1992 with a group of “like-minded businessmen” who met up at lunchtime – hence the name – with the aim of bringing West End shows to international audiences. Their first show was Barnum, which Cundall told the South China Morning Post was an “abject failure”. According to the interview, his next attempt was South Pacific, followed by Les Misérables and Cirque du Soleil, with Lunchbox making a profit by this fourth show. He told Stuff website that he had been working on Lunchbox at the same time as being a fund manager “until I fell out with the Rothschilds and had to decide what to do”. About the falling-out, he added: “I think they got bored of me. I think we were bored of each other.”

Following a five-year break during which Cundall worked as a concert producer in Sydney, the company was re-established in 2004. Since then, Cundall has worked on shows including Wicked, Singin’ in the Rain, Dirty Dancing, Starlight Express, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Thriller Live. In addition to its UK based-company, Cundall set up separate companies under the Lunchbox brand in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines.

Cundall is a convivial figure with a penchant for winter sports – which he has combined with his work in theatre. In 2004, he established the Imperial Ice Stars with producer Tony Mercer. This theatrical ice-skating troupe has toured shows including The Sleeping Beauty on Ice and Swan Lake on Ice. Another project has seen him take the Ronnie Scott’s All Stars to play jazz on the slopes of a ski resort as part of Zermatt Unplugged festival in 2014.

The producer likes to fly helicopters, telling the Yorkshire Post in an interview that his “perfect day” consists of flying over the county and landing for lunch at a country pub.

In 2018, Cundall was awarded an MBE for his services to the entertainment industries in the New Year honours list. In a video interview about it, he says: “It’s a wonderful privilege and a wonderful honour and I was absolutely staggered when I got home on a Friday night and saw the envelope.”

‘The details of the relationships between James Cundall and the theatres he was booking into were never clear to any of us’ Jessica Koravos, Really Useful Group

While the arrangement for each production would differ, in many cases Cundall would be the presenter for international shows – meaning he was responsible for selling tickets to local audiences. Koravos said that he “quite quickly became the go-to person” for certain international markets, which included Hong Kong, Singapore, Manila and Kuala Lumpur.

“The details of the relationships between James and the theatres he was booking into were never clear to any of us. We would do our deal with him, and whatever he was doing behind the scenes we didn’t really see,” she added.

Many producers affected by the collapse of Cundall’s companies said they had worked with Cundall for years without any red flags. André Ptaszynski, executive producer of the RSC’s Matilda, said Cundall came across as a “well-heeled operator and deep-pocketed”, adding: “We all know he had substantial property in Yorkshire. He was a rich gent.”

According to Ptaszynski, Cundall was a “humorous character – we all got on with him well, [he was] trustworthy, we never had any reason before not to deal with him.”

Paul Warwick Griffin, founding partner of GWB Entertainment, the producer of Matilda in Singapore and Hong Kong, described Cundall as “gregarious, personable and charming”. He continued: “He’s a very interesting chap. He always had crazy attention to detail on budgets and was certainly a robust partner.”

Just one of the producers that spoke to The Stage said they had previously had “some concerns” about a lack of thoroughness with paperwork.

When did the problems start?

It’s tricky to pinpoint exactly when a hole in the finances first appeared. The issues first came to public attention with the collapse of the Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, with some of the producers believing that Cundall had been over-ambitious with the project.

A list of creditors to Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre Ltd released earlier this month by Companies House reveals claims totalling more than £378,000 by suppliers, cast and crew. Co-producers of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre in Blenheim, Raymond Gubbay Ltd and Blenheim Palace, have declined to comment.

Cundall has given various excuses of factors beyond his control that he claims have contributed to the collapse of Lunchbox Theatrical Productions. These have included blaming Brexit for “decimated ticket sales” at the Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, and the riots in Hong Kong that he said led to the cancellation of the season of Matilda. He has also blamed a terrorist massacre in New Zealand and competitive programming in Singapore for issues with other shows.

Chef Brian Turner, producer James Cundall and director Damian Crudan at the opening of the pop-up Rose Theatre in York

However, in some of these cases, producers have denied that ticket sales were poor. Three sources, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Stage that ticket sales for the RSC’s Matilda in Hong Kong were in fact “good”. They maintained that the season’s cancellation was due to Lunchbox Theatrical Production’s financial situation rather than poor ticket sales or civil unrest.

Koravos also said that Phantom and Cats “were selling very well”, with Phantom having “exceeded its projections in Singapore by quite a margin”.

She claimed that the debt had arisen because Cundall had been taking money from the box office before shows had run, and was using it elsewhere.

Ptaszynski told The Stage: “[The cancellation of Matilda in Hong Kong] made the whole house of cards collapse because until that point he was able to hope against hope that he could trade his way out of trouble while holding everybody else off.”

Continues…


Timeline

April 18: Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre press launch at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire.

June-September: Summer seasons take place at the Shakespeare’s Rose Theatres at York and Blenheim Palace.

September 9: James Cundall registers new company JWTC Ltd with Companies House.

September 20-October 20: Season of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda due to take place in Hong Kong is cancelled.

September 23: Most of the Lunchbox UK team is made redundant.

September 25: The Stage reports that Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre is set to go into liquidation after “unsustainable losses” from its summer seasons.

October 17: Lunchbox Theatrical Productions UK appoints an administrator.

October 18: Equity releases a statement claiming that more than 70 actors and crew are owed money from the collapse of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre.

November 20: The Stage reveals more than £5 million alleged debts owed by Lunchbox for work on productions including The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Matilda and War Horse.


In the case of Matilda at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, customers were left waiting for ticket refunds for more than six weeks. A statement from ticketing company HK Ticketing accused Lunchbox of “notwithstanding [sic] its contractual obligations” to arrange refunds. The statement added that the Academy of Performing Arts was paying for the refunds out of its own reserves, and had reported the matter to the Hong Kong police.

When approached for comment, Lunchbox Theatrical Productions confirmed that money had been taken in advance from the box office as part of an existing deal. Although this is not illegal in Hong Kong, Koravos says the business practice would be “unacceptable in the UK”.

Lunchbox’s statement said: “Lunchbox Theatrical Productions and other companies have a ticketing agreement with the HKAPA whereby 60% of the accrued box office is pre-paid to the producer in staged payments prior to the production opening.

“It has always been clearly understood by the HKAPA that these payments are made to enable Lunchbox Theatrical Productions or other producers to pay pre-production costs.”

The statement adds: “In the case of Matilda the Musical, the ticketing revenue released to Lunchbox by the HKAPA has, as is usual, been spent on pre-production costs, paid out to many third parties including the overseas producers. Sadly we have not been able to obtain any repayments from these third parties, despite our belief that we are in a ‘force majeure’ situation.”

Essentially, the statement confirms that ticketing revenue has been taken out of the box office before the show has run and spent on other costs – with Cundall claiming he is unable to recoup the money.

The statement added: “Lunchbox Theatrical Productions is deeply saddened by the events of the past few months, and to have disappointed so many of its loyal theatregoers with the cancellation of Matilda.”

Other producers, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Stage they were aware of similar arrangements in place with Lunchbox in terms of paying out box office revenue before the show.

Warwick Griffin also described this as a “very bad business practice”, adding: “Industry standard is you can’t draw down on performances that have not matured.”

One producer said there was “very little clarity” regarding Lunchbox’s financial situation, before adding: “The terrible truth is that every time someone got out a shovel to try to excavate and see how big the hole was, the hole just seemed to get bigger and bigger.” Another producer suggested that it appeared Cundall had “just been moving money around”. When pressed for comment on these claims, Cundall has not responded.

One source close to Lunchbox added: “It’s the epitome of a gambler being like: ‘One more spin and I’m going to recoup my losses’ and it never happened – it was just chasing and chasing.”

Once cracks started to appear in the company’s finances, Cundall began “trying to perpetuate the notion he was trying to sell his company”, one source said, and others agreed.

However, it never happened, and on September 23 most of the Lunchbox UK team was made redundant. It is understood that around 10 members of staff are collectively owed thousands of pounds. Part of this was because the maximum government redundancy pay did not cover the full wages they would have received, as well as holiday pay and pension contributions.

The producers who spoke to The Stage agreed that theatre is a “risky business”, with many having “given Cundall the benefit of the doubt” up to a point.

However, the producers reacted angrily after discovering that Cundall had registered new company JWTC Ltd with UK Companies House shortly before Lunchbox Theatrical Productions went into administration.

Cundall appears to still be trading through this new company in the form of a Winter Wonderland attraction in York, which he has produced for the past 15 years. The website is copyrighted to Jamboree Entertainment, which The Stage has been told is another name for the company JWTC Ltd. Cundall has not responded to requests for comment on this specific point.

The Imperial Ice Stars also appears to have transferred to Jamboree. Lunchbox Theatrical Productions’ director of corporate communications Rebecca Cundall – James Cundall’s wife – is listed as the general enquiries contact for the Imperial Ice Stars under a Jamboree Entertainment email address.

‘It’s upsetting to watch Lunchbox try to find a way to set up another company and carry on trading’ Producer André Ptaszynski

On Companies House, there are still two active companies of which Cundall is a director: JWTC Ltd and Thor’s Bars Ltd.

Ptaszynski said: “On the realisation that Lunchbox has defaulted on payments to a number of productions and producers, it’s upsetting to then watch them try to find a way to set up another company and carry on trading.”

Warwick Griffin said it was “deeply upsetting on both a professional and a personal level” to see Cundall set up a new company, while the National Theatre’s chief operating officer Liz Fosbury said she was “shocked to find that James Cundall continues to trade actively while owing significant funds to so many theatre companies”.

It is unclear what will happen next, as some organisations involved, including the National, are taking legal advice. Many are awaiting a full list of creditors for the UK-based Lunchbox Theatrical Productions. However, this may only represent a fraction of the total global debts as there are five other Lunchbox companies registered internationally. A previous press statement from Lunchbox confirmed that all five companies have gone into, or are set to go into, administration.

Reflecting on the situation, one of the producers suggested it had all arisen from Cundall’s “desperate need to belong” within the theatre industry.

“My sense of James is somebody who was desperate to be in the room, he perceived himself within the industry as an outsider and he wanted nothing more than to be one of the club. His MBE was desperately important to him. It wasn’t necessarily an ego thing, but it was very much about him feeling as though he belonged. My sense is that if anything, James sometimes overshot because there was a desperate need to belong.”

The producer added: “It certainly never translated into a sense of somebody who has the capacity to behave in a way that put many people’s livelihoods at risk. That was what was ultimately so shocking and upsetting.”

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