‘Last money in, first money out’ is a phrase often heard in commercial theatre when producers are struggling to reach the necessary capitalisation for a production. I fear it may become more common amid the challenges of Brexit.
Last week, Lyn Gardner wrote about the effect of Brexit on fringe theatre, yet the issue is looming equally large for the commercial sector, which could ultimately prove long-lasting and destructive.
There was considerable shock in Theatreland last week when The Man in the White Suit posted early closing notices. With a cast headed by Stephen Mangan and Strictly winner Kara Tointon, directed by Sean Foley and with a team of experienced producers, its commercial prospects looked good. Despite a mixed critical response, it was expected to complete its limited season. Instead, it has been one of the bigger West End failures of this year.
Wyndham’s Theatre is one of the most sought-after and best-positioned playhouses in the West End. The show opened at the perfect time of year, running through autumn and including half-term and Christmas – two boom periods for family theatregoing.
This show’s failure raises a key question: if this kind of production show playing a limited season with well-known stars cannot survive against mixed reviews, then how can a more risky proposition? Looking at the potential causes, Brexit concerns and the economy may be seen as strong factors.
The demise of The Man in the White Suit may lead to a knock-on-effect. Its failure could prompt investors to hold back until there’s more certainty over Brexit. This understandably contributes to frayed nerves for independent producers trying to raise capitalisation. Brexit may also represent a significant challenge for foreign investment, which today shores up many UK productions.
Uncertainty over the value of sterling can affect both recoupment and profit. A show may focus, in a limited season, on recouping and then immediately close. However, a fluctuating pound can mean that in the weeks after settlements are completed, international investors are left without a full return on their investment. They might be tempted to divert attention from the West End to other, apparently more stable, international markets. Such a move could greatly affect the West End’s ability to present ambitious work.
The full extent of these issues may not become apparent until 2021. Many currently announced West End shows are likely to have already locked into place most of their capitalisation but the commercial industry must prepare for any fallout.
We are at a time where, commercially, shows fly or fail with little middle ground. None of this will help independent producers’ blood pressure as they try to bring their shows to the stage. Ultimately, commercial theatre could be facing face huge change, from which it will take years to fully recover.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan