Politics is full of drama, but 11 Downing Street was arguably as dramatic as it has ever been last night as Olivier and Theatre Award UK winners, producers and supporters of British theatre gathered to celebrate the industry’s success.
The event, hosted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s wife Frances Osborne and Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries Ed Vaizey, was the first of its kind, taking theatre’s success to the heart of government.
In a week in which there has been much talk of funding and support for regional theatre, Vaizey took the chance to express the government’s support in a short speech, saying: “We’re here to celebrate your enormous success. Don’t be in any doubt that the government is aware of how amazing our wonderful theatres are and we recognise the importance of subsidised theatre in supporting West End theatre. One cannot exist without the other. We are incredibly proud to support you as best we can through these difficult times and into the good times.”
Among those listening on, cooing at the Downing Street cat as it casually sauntered around the room or being won over by the reunion of the Olivier Award-winning quartet of Matildas, were fellow Matilda alumni Bertie Carvel and Rob Howell, Sweeney Todd co-stars Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton, actress Ruth Wilson, lyricist Tim Rice and theatrical impresarios Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir Cameron Mackintosh.
Speaking to the gathered crowd, Society of London Theatre President Mark Rubinstein and Theatrical Management Association President Rachel Tackley spoke eloquently and passionately about what theatre gives to the UK and what it needs, saying: “It has been an incredible year for the UK, and as a sector we are enormously, and rightly, proud of the role we have played in the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the accompanying Cultural Olympiad. These events were seen as good for the country, good for the economy and good for defining a confident, ambitious and creative nation.
“Danny Boyle recently stated that his journey to the Olympics had started at the Bolton Octagon. It might sound strange to those outside our industry but for those of us inside, it is a familiar story of regional theatre’s ability to support and cultivate a new generation of actors, directors, designers and producers. It is no accident that so many Oscar-winners are alumni of British theatre.
“British theatre is world-class and in a league of its own. In London our theatres attract more audiences and present a greater number of shows than any other city in the world, including New York. But our productions are not just seen in London, not just seen across the UK, but all over the world. From Andrew Lloyd-Weber’s The Phantom Of The Opera and Cameron Mackintosh’s Les Misérables, through to the most recent exports such as War Horse and Matilda, this country produces shows of the highest quality which are valuable global exports. Theatre has made a huge contribution to the UK’s recently announced status as the most important and influential country based on ‘soft power’.
“This weekend, a Downing Street spokesperson confirmed how committed this government is to arts and culture and we applaud this government’s determination to do everything possible to get Creative Britain through this difficult period. And yet we feel uneasy; the fat lady hasn’t sung yet. We are warned about potential in-year cuts to the arts councils and the very real threats to local authority.
“We are here first and foremost to celebrate the excellence of our theatrical talent and delighted that so many of our Theatre Awards UK and Olivier Award-winners are here. Many of you, like Danny Boyle, will have learnt your craft in drama schools or theatres which rely upon a mix of self-generated income and support from local and central government. Our creative industries are renown globally as a result of the rich, intricate but delicate ecosystem of education, training and funding which we must all strive to protect.
“It’s clear that theatre is essential to the lifeblood and reputation of our country. The health of our creative industry is reliant on modest but sustained investment. Without it, our future status as global cultural leaders is threatened.
“We want to see the local and central support of theatre maintained and we would welcome theatre being offered the kind of tax breaks already afforded to other creative sectors such as film, animation, TV and computer games in order to encourage further commercial investment.
“We would like to thank MasterCard and the other sponsors here tonight for their generous support over the past year. However we cannot expect sponsorship and philanthropic giving to fill the gaps that regional theatres face from Local Authority cuts.
“UK theatre attracts audiences well in excess of 30 million per year, so far from being an elitist activity; theatregoing sees more attendances than all professional football games each year.
“Theatre is undoubtedly an economic success story. This year alone the members that Mark and I represent will generate over £1 billion of box office sales for the UK economy. But it’s is not just the sales themselves and the VAT returned to the government. It is not just the knock-on financial impact on hundreds of restaurants, hotels and car parks around the county and the tourism that our theatres attract, it is also the vital contribution to the health, happiness and well-being of our citizens, the social impact on our small communities and big society. All this reward is generated from a modest investment by the Arts Council of £107 million. That’s £1 billion of sales from an investment of £107 million.
“Theatre generates an enormous financial and social return from investment of less than 0.1% of public spending. Just as in our great panto tradition, Jack turns three tiny beans into great riches.”
Speaking to Official London Theatre after the speeches, Carvel, who is set to climb back into the fearsome corset of Matilda The Musical’s Miss Trunchbull when the UK hit opens on Broadway, said: “I thought their speech was really brave; a political, impassioned view of why arts funding is important. If we want to carry on seeing the kind of cultural climate we’re in the business of creating, we’ve got to put a little bit of money in.”
Ball, whose performance as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street was the talk of London this summer, added: “That extraordinary statistic that more people visit the theatre than go to the football is thrilling. Theatre clearly is still an important force and in order to go on it needs investment. Our most innovative stuff is so expensive to do, it has to be done with government support, and that feeds the rest of the business.”