News last week that Shakespeare’s Globe was looking at a substantial number of redundancies due to “a difficult financial year” followed similar warnings from the Royal Shakespeare Company. Meanwhile, London’s Royal Court has announced a different reaction to cash-flow problems: cutting the number of in-house shows it programmes.
This week came the announcement that the proposed year-long tour of musical Doctor Dolittle has been curtailed after only two months due to lower-than-expected bookings.
Clearly, a range of factors are at play: the companies behind these examples all have different business models, ranging from the consortium-based approach of Dr Dolittle producer Music and Lyrics, to unfunded not-for-profit Shakespeare’s Globe and the Arts Council England-backed RSC and Royal Court.
But whatever their differences, they are all serious, established and prudent operators. It is one thing when an inexperienced producer like those behind Heaven on Earth goes bust, but when established names like these start tightening their belts, it’s time to pay attention.
These developments are taking place against a background of falling consumer confidence more generally. Leisure spend (including theatre tickets) is often linked to that measure – when confidence is low, people cut back on non-essentials. A post-referendum 2016 Deloitte report into leisure spending painted a relatively rosy picture: broad growth across the sector plus a certain amount of resilience specific to cultural spending which, after fitness, was the least likely leisure activity to be cut back by consumers if money became tight.
But, more than a quarter of respondents still said they would cut back on culture and entertainment in harder times and – since the publication of that report – those times have begun to arrive. Consumer confidence is now reckoned to be at its lowest point in more than five years after a slump at the end of 2018 – prompted, it’s thought, by increasing uncertainty about Brexit.
With events unfolding quickly in parliament, by the time you read this, we might have some more indication of the government’s direction of travel with Europe, but probably not a lot. Until that is resolved, it’s unlikely we’ll hear about a government spending review – even when it might happen, let alone what it might mean for arts funding. In the meantime, expect confidence to fall further.
Theatre has previously proved itself to be robust and adaptable, but it would be foolish to think that it can be totally immune to all this.