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Venues hail funding pledge while Robin 2 Club struggling with lockdown impact

Bilston | Attractions | Published:

It’s the news theatres and other arts venues across the region have been waiting for.

The Grand Theatre has hosted training sessions for NHS workers

More than £1.5 billion will be pumped into the arts and entertainment sector to prevent the industry’s collapse.

After weeks of intense pressure, the Government has agreed to prop up key venues in the UK as well as support local institutions.

While there was widespread support from the region’s venues to the news, it remains clear that the impact on local arts will be devastating.

The sector supports one in ten local jobs across the region and fears remain for a 135,000-strong workforce.

A number of venues were unwilling to comment until greater details are provided.

The Grand Theatre, in Wolverhampton, last week announced it was cancelling its pantomime for 2020.

It has hosted a training week for NHS workers in recent weeks, but has otherwise been empty.

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Its associate director Vicky Price said it did not want to speak of the funding offer until it knew of more details and how it might help it get through the current crisis.

Others, however, were more forthcoming. Wolverhampton rock star Beverley Knight took to Twitter to express her delight that the Government had listened.

Beverley Knight tweeted her support

The star, who plays rock venues for her live concerts and theatres for such shows as The Bodyguard, said: “Like everyone in the arts, we await the details, but this is good news. We have been heard.”

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Although the Government’s announcement changes the narrative surrounding arts and finally provides some good news, it is clear that it is only a small step in the right direction. Lord Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber said: “Great to see the Government support the arts, but what we really need is for the UK’s theatres to open safely as soon as practically possible.”

Theatres and concert halls have stared into the abyss for two months and some have already collapsed, with staff cuts and dozens of shows cancelled.

Fiona Allen, chief executive at Birmingham Hippodrome, has been at the heart of negotiations with the Government that has led to the cash injection.

She said: “We are overjoyed to hear the announcement from UK Government will be investing £1.57 billion to protect our nations world-class cultural, arts and heritage institutions during this time of crisis.

"This is welcomed news as we were looking at 70 per cent of theatres across the UK being closed.

Birmingham Hippodrome is supporting NHS workers as it waits to reopen

"This support will mean that more venues, jobs and companies can survive, and there will be an industry to return to when we can do safely. Theatres play an important civic role in our society, bringing communities together and helping regional economies thrive..”

The money is intended to help venues of all sizes, from large theatres like Birmingham Hippodromes to much-loved regional rock clubs, like The Robin 2, at Bilston.

However, it is unclear who will get the support and whether it will be enough to keep venues afloat.

Fraser Tranter, owner of the Robin 2, bought the popular club 18 months ago and has poured £250,000 into a refurbishment, transforming it into one of the best-equipped in the UK.

However, he’s now in a position where he cannot even open his doors to sell a drink or put on a show, which means money is going down the drain.

He said: “To be honest, it’s tough. I bought a business a year-and-a-half ago and they won’t even let me open. People can go to pubs, we’ve seen Bournemouth beach, there’s been protests – everyone is out on the streets.

"This continued lockdown is killing us and I don’t know how much longer I can keep it going. We’re on survival mode. We’re just hanging in there.”

Wednesbury blues rock star Joanne Shaw Taylor at Bilston's Robin 2. Picture: Andy Shaw

The West Midlands has an impressive circuit of local venues, including medium-sized venues like The Garrick, at Lichfield; The Gatehouse, at Stafford; The Prince of Wales, in Cannock; Town Halls, in Dudley, Stourbridge and Brierley Hill; Theatre Severn, in Shrewsbury and Oakengates Theatre, at Telford.

Councillor Carolyn Trowbridge, cabinet member for leisure at Stafford Borough Council, said: “The Gatehouse is a jewel in the crown of Stafford’s cultural offer and I know there are so many people who will be looking forward to once again attending the extensive range of productions our theatre delivers.

“It is a terribly difficult time for Freedom Leisure, the not for profit charitable trust that runs the Theatre on our behalf. I hope that this injection of funding into the sector will help them to get back up and running when they are able to.”

The experience of Oakengates Theatre is typical for all in that sector.

The National Theatre in London wrapped in tape for the #MissingLiveTheatre campaign

Since Covid-19 began, its staff have cancelled 13 different productions. A further 46 shows have been postponed. The venue will have lost hundreds of thousands of pounds and there is no sign yet of when it will reopen.

Venue boss Debbie King said staff had worked as hard as possible to support the community and ensure there were things to look forward to in the future.

She said: “It’s been a relentless programme of rescheduling, cancellation, redeployment of staff, refunding ticket holders. Everyone has given their best to support the people in our community.

“We are a council owned venue so some staff have been redeployed to help other people. I’ve been doing household recycling and working on shielding with residents. We’ve been doing deliveries to isolated residents and helping with new car park systems. The shame at the moment is that the community shows haven’t gone ahead. We have local dance schools and the amateur dramatics and they’d worked so hard to put on shows but now they can’t. I feel so sorry for them.”

Mrs King said that the cash announcement would not solve the problems affecting the sector, adding: “It’s the guidelines we need. We’re still just waiting for those guidelines so that we know what the thinking is and we know how we can safely return to business. It’s impossible to say how it will look in the future. Every show has a different type of audience and we’ll have a huge amount of work to do to operate safely while reassuring our audiences and bringing confidence back.”

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