Highgate fringe venue will go to the wall without Government help

PUBLISHED: 12:21 18 June 2020 | UPDATED: 12:21 18 June 2020

John Plews from Upstairs at the Gatehouse theatre and past productions of 42nd Street and Flat Out

John Plews from Upstairs at the Gatehouse theatre and past productions of 42nd Street and Flat Out

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John and Katie Plews who have run Upstairs at the Gatehouse Theatre for 20 years say without a cash injection by October they will close

John Plews from Upstairs at the Gatehouse theatre and past productions of 42nd Street and Flat OutJohn Plews from Upstairs at the Gatehouse theatre and past productions of 42nd Street and Flat Out

Without more Government help, small theatres like Upstairs at the Gatehouse will go to the wall by October.

That’s the stark judgement of Gatehouse artistic director John Plews, who has not only run the Highgate venue for the past 20 years with wife Katie, but is chair of the 54-member Society of Independent Theatres (SIT).

Plews fears that small venues will be at the back of the queue for Government handouts, but says: “Commercial West End theatres can cope but for a lot of us small theatres, who are totally reliant on box office to survive, unless we get some money by October we will shut - which is awful after 20-odd years.”

As chair of SIT he is lobbying the Department for Culture Media and Sport about the two metre social distancing rule.

“A huge amount will depend on whether they revise it to one metre. That will be really crucial as to what happens to small venues. We’ve done calculations, we’ve looked at the seats and our dressing room. If social distancing remains at two metres we won’t open, full stop. Other small theatres all feel the same. We need at least three seats between people if not four. At one metre we can just about open with up to five in a show and an audience of 50 - 60. We’re just writing a new three hander so one metre distancing will work in our dressing room.

“Even then it will be November at the earliest or maybe Christmas before we reopen.”

The Gatehouse closed its doors on March 17 and has so far received only a £10,000 small business grant from Camden Council. Part and parcel of any reopening would be additional deep cleaning, installing Perspex shields in the box office and making entrance and exits separate.

Although famed for its extravagant Christmas musical, six months of no revenue means The Gatehouse’s annual spectacular will be scaled down if it goes ahead at all.

The production is usually funded through income from late summer and autumn productions, plus there is “the added problem of social distancing during auditions and rehearsals”.

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While he and Katie are artistic directors, everyone else at the Gatehouse is freelance.

Some SIT members such as The Pleasance in Islington and The Park in Finsbury Park have permanent staff who qualified for the government’s furlough scheme. But there is a question mark over what will happen when it ends in October.

“An awful lot of people in theatre have fallen through the cracks,” says Plews.

Indeed venues as diverse as The Royal Albert Hall, and pub theatres with 50 seats, need a cash injection to survive.

SIT is setting out the case for the cultural and economic benefits of small venues. The annual turnover of SIT members which all have less than 300 seats, is £46 million. Audiences eating at local restaurants or using cabs to get home generate over £200 million for local economies every year.

Lockdown is estimated to create a £14 million deficit in the sector. The Gatehouse, with its 128 seats, stands to lose £60,000-£65,000

As far as positives, Plews says: “Hopefully we’ll all be more efficient after this because of what we’ve had to go through.”

But with funds depleting fast, he doesn’t believe that theatre will ever return to normal.

“We’re all knocking on the door saying can we have some help, can we have some money please. If you don’t give us money we’re going to close down.”

Some theatres, like The Cockpit in Marylebone, have gone down the route of filming plays to be streamed online, but Plews says the Gatehouse doesn’t have the technology. “You’ve got to do it properly otherwise it’s not worth doing”.

“Besides filmed theatre leaves a lot to be desired because the actors are caught between two stools - do they play to a live audience, or perform for the camera?”

John Plews gives a talk about Life Upstairs at the Gatehouse as part of the virtual Highgate Festival on Saturday June 20 at 7.30pm highgatefestival.org


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