Save our West End: why we need the arts

By Helen Brown

“The tutu has always been a socially distanced piece of clothing,” says Will Tuckett. So when designing Lazuli Sky – the UK’s first major dance work since lockdown ­– the star choreographer expanded the classic 50cm tutu by the pandemic’s regulation two metres. Then – “to reflect the ways in which we’ve all felt time both speeding up and slowing down this year” – he projected slow-motion images of the sky and sea onto his dancers’ spinning parasol skirts. 

“Despite the masks and the sanitiser,” says Tuckett, “I was having a wonderful time being back in the studio with Carlos Acosta and all these wonderful young dancers until I had a horrible thought: are we just doing this for ourselves? Does anybody out there actually need to see a ballet right now?” He got the answer when tickets for live performances of Lazuli Sky at both Birmingham and Sadler’s Wells sold out within six hours. 

(Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet in Lazuli Sky; Photo: Johan Persson)

“Not only that,” he says, “but we sold over a thousand live streaming subscriptions on the day before the show even opened. People do need the arts. I know ballet’s not for everybody. That’s fine. Experimental theatre, opera and concept art aren’t either. But pop music, pantomime, television… we all need it as both an escape from and a way to understand ourselves, our society and our situation.”

Tuckett’s right. We need the arts to lift us – emotionally, intellectually, physically and economically – through this crisis. The emotional and intellectual impact should be obvious. 

Physically: did you know that going to the theatre can have the same impact on your heart as 30 minutes of cardio exercise? In 2017 scientists from UCL and the University of Lancaster monitored the heart rates, brain activity, and other physiological signals of 12 individuals at a live performance of the West End musical Dreamgirls and found that, during the performance, the heart rates of seated audience members spent an average of 28 minutes beating at an elevated range between 50-70% of their maximum heart rate. According to the British Heart Foundation, that’s the optimal heart rate to stimulate cardio fitness and stamina. 

And just as our society feels most divided, heart rates of those watching the same play also become synchronised. A fact that Jennifer Ehle (who played Elizabeth Bennett in the 1995 TV series of Pride and Prejudice and also stars as dying diva in the gut-wrenchingly good new British horror flick St Maud) told me “feels tangible when you’re on stage.”

Economically, British arts and culture began contributing more to the national coffers than our agricultural sector in 2016. According to the Arts Council, the arts and culture sector directly contributed £13.5bn to the UK economy in 2018, and employed people in 187,000 full time or equivalent jobs. A further report from Metro Dynamics says that the cultural sector has an impact on the wider economy in other ways such as acting as “an R&D lab for the creative industries” and enabling access to a “rich and diverse education”. 

Britain is admired around the world for its artistic heritage. From Shakespeare to the Beatles and beyond, our culture is our shop window. It sells our lively wit, originality, courage and stamina. When my banker friends want to impress visiting clients, they take them to our theatres, galleries, museums and concert halls. They book VIP packages to see pop stars like Adele or big West End musicals like Tina, the Tina Turner musical. Although that’s a show based on the story of an American star, it came to life in London in 2018 in the hands of brilliant British director, Phyllida Lloyd, who’s displayed the national ability to bounce enthusiastically between “high” and “low” culture, delivering a critically acclaimed all-female Shakespeare trilogy at the Donmar Warehouse and an Oscar-winning biopic about Margaret Thatcher. Lloyd also produced the gloriously giddy ABBA musical, Mamma Mia!, which has been running in the West End since 1999 and seen by more than 56  million people across 40 countries; the 2008 film (also directed by Lloyd) is the highest grossing British movie of all time.

I spoke to Georgia-born, British-raised pop star Katie Melua earlier this month and she told me her parents felt that just getting their gifted daughter “to the land of Queen and the Beatles” made them feel her success would be a certainty. Melua, who arrived in the UK aged nine in 1993, melted hearts with her hits and made an estimated £18 million before she was 30 while working with British songwriter Mike Batt. She says of her adopted homeland: 

“You just can’t argue with the quality and beauty of that history. You’ve got Led Zeppelin, Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter too. Because your cultural reach is so wide, those books and songs mean the UK is represented as kind, clever and basically good. And I know those aren’t jazzy or sexy terms to put in articles and political opinion pieces but, when it comes to real life, good people are what most humans around the world care about and are probably the best type of people to do business with. What you send out there brings great minds to these shores. My dad’s a heart surgeon and came here to do good, with the hope that you would also give me a chance to make music.”

But those working in the arts are struggling. According to LIVE, the umbrella group representing the live music industry, the sector is set to lose 170,000 jobs before the end of 2020 as revenue falls by 81% – four times the national average. Even high profile venues are at risk of closure. The Royal Albert Hall has made a plea for £20m in donations to keep it afloat. 

The West End has gone dark. In October Andrew Lloyd-Webber (whose long-running hit Phantom of the Opera was the pandemic’s first major theatrical casualty) warned a Commons’ select committee that it would be economically “impossible” to run theatres with social distancing rules in place and that, although theatres are attempting to find ways to run shows, the government needs to step in. Hundreds of plans have been dashed. Jeremy Kareken, writer of the Broadway hit The Lifespan of a Fact is just one of the thwarted, “We were so looking forward to a West End run – London is the ideal home for plays. I try to go every year to see what the West End and South Bank are putting on.” In Kareken’s view, London “is the world’s high street for players and playwrights to ply our trade.”

Meanwhile, actors are having to diversify to keep their profession afloat. The Olivier Award-nominated Michael Xavier (famed for Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon and My Fair Lady) told me he’s now teaching online master classes for aspiring actors, who are missing out on “the showcases where actors find agents. Xavier says these newcomers “have no idea where they will end up.” 

“Things feel scary,” says Will Tuckett. “I’ve had my moments of waking up at 3am with feelings of existential dread. I do question the value of what I create. But I also believe that people working in the arts are question posers and problem solvers. We bring people hope. We’re there to offer ways of making sense of difficult and divided times. I’ll admit I was feeling a bit blurry by the time I took that curtain call on the first night of Lazuli Sky. It was weird seeing an audience of just 150 humans in such a big space. But the communal emotion was so positive, so full of love and life and optimism. We were all in it together. And that feeling’s worth fighting for, isn’t it?” 


Helen Brown is an arts journalist who writes regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail


 

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