James Cundall might not be a name familiar to some UK-based readers, but he has been a key commercial player internationally for the best part of three decades.
Although now based in Yorkshire, he was working as a Hong Kong financier when he took his first steps into theatre in 1993.
Since then, Cundall has worked with most of the UK’s main commercial producers to present work abroad – especially in the Asia-Pacific region. The shows he has worked on with his company Lunchbox Theatrical Productions reads like a list of the world’s biggest musical hits: The Phantom of the Opera, Mamma Mia!, We Will Rock You, Cats, Matilda and Wicked.
Earlier this year, he received an MBE as part of the Queen’s New Year honours. Now, 10 months later, the whole edifice has come crashing down. As well as the millions of pounds claimed to be owed to the originating producers of the work he was trusted with presenting to global audiences, there are cast and crew to consider, as well as ticket-buyers and Cundall’s own staff at Lunchbox.
While Cundall has enjoyed most of his success promoting other people’s work, his current problems first came to light with a UK-based enterprise that he was co-producing: the pop-up Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre.
When that folded last month, it appeared to be an isolated incident, but not entirely surprising. While the venue is reported to have done well in York in 2018, Lunchbox’s attempt to replicate its success at Blenheim Palace, which has no real history of performance and is not easily accessed by public transport, was an odd choice. While Cundall was keen to blame poor ticket sales on Brexit, that seemed like a convenient excuse.
He would not be the first producer to make a bad call. What is truly shocking, though, is how the rest of his empire has toppled since.
Cundall has cited a litany of reasons for this – “civil riots in Hong Kong, a terrorist massacre in New Zealand, competitive programming in Singapore, and consumer uncertainty due to Brexit in the UK” – but those I’ve spoken to have raised an eyebrow. Certainly, it’s not obvious how these events could have affected all the productions Cundall was working on and why poor box office performance on individual shows should be allowed to have a knock-on effect on other, independent productions.
At the moment, much remains unclear, but one thing is certain: this is the biggest theatrical collapse for some time and we are only just starting to see the ripples.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his weekly column at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith