Irish actors on the crisis the West End theatre industry faces

Denise O’Donoghue checks in with several expats affected by the cancellation of shows in Britain
Irish actors on the crisis the West End theatre industry faces
Sarah O'Connor, centre, in Waitress before the show closed due to the coronavirus.

Denise O’Donoghue checks in with several expats affected by the cancellation of shows in Britain

Each year, more people go to the theatre in Britain than attend Premier League football. Yet, while matches have returned to our TV screens, theatre doors there remain closed, causing a potentially devastating loss of income for an industry that often struggles to thrive and for workers who were left without financial support for months, many of whom moved to the UK from Ireland to establish their careers.

West End star Sarah O’Connor (@sarah_c_oconnor) saw her run in the hit musical ‘Waitress’ come to an end early because of Covid-19. Sarah, who is from Dublin, says it was a difficult situation for her and her castmates.

“We were all absolutely gutted. It’s always sad when a show is closing but for it to close early with no closure for us as actors is really tough. One day you have a job you are super passionate about and then next it’s completely gone. It’s definitely a tough situation to find yourself in,” she says.

O’Connor made an interesting decision to train as a carer after theatres in the UK closed their doors but she says the career move is only temporary.

“We had no idea how long this was going to go on for,” she says. “It hasn’t been an easy transition. Caring for people comes naturally I guess but the actual job is so different to anything I’ve done before. It’s emotionally difficult too. People also think it’s a career change, it’s not. I just needed to find a new career for now as the arts has completely come to a halt.”

After months of campaigning, the British government announced a £1.5 billion package to support the arts on Sunday, July 5. While many welcome the much-needed financial support, O’Connor hopes it will continue as long as it’s needed.

“I think it’s fantastic and I’m hoping that it will be distributed correctly and that it keeps us alive - all areas of the arts and everyone involved. I hope we continue to get support through this time. More will be needed though but it’s a good start. I commend Ireland on the help it’s given so far.”

Actor David Fynn is also critical of the UK government’s handling of the situation for arts workers. David, who grew up on the north side of Cork city, finished his run as the lead in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘School of Rock’ just a couple of weeks before theatres closed.

“There doesn't really seem to be a plan in place for the arts sector to recover. It seems to be very, very low on the list of priorities from the government,” he says.

“When you look at how neighbouring countries have dealt with it, I feel like the arts sector has been really let down. The amount of support and investment the likes of France, Germany, Spain and Ireland are providing the arts in their respective countries in recent months is putting the UK to shame. The Nuffield Theatre in Southampton has closed permanently. This is one of the best regional theatres in the country and to see it be allowed to just fall by the wayside is heartbreaking.

“I fear the smaller and regional theatres, which are breeding grounds for new writing and places where younger artists cut their teeth and gain experience, will all suffer in a massive way. I think we will see the damage from the pandemic and the lack of government support for years to come.”

Fellow Corkonian Molly Lynch agrees that the closure of regional theatres will have a devastating impact for many.

“Whilst the package announced is a huge relief and some welcome hopeful news, there have still been theatres such as the Nuffield in Southampton, and others, that have completely collapsed during this time, so it is definitely late. It is also, at the moment, a non-specific fix for a problem we do not yet know the scale of. However, that doesn't take away from the cautious optimism my colleagues and I are feeling at this stage,” she says.

Lynch recently starred in The Last Five Years in London, which was open only two weeks before coronavirus forced its closure.

“The Last Five Years was a beautiful, two person, actor-musician production that the wonderful Jonathan O'Boyle directed. I was so proud to be a part of it and know it will have another life as soon as it is possible.” Molly says she hopes the theatre industry can return soon and continue attracting tourists to the UK and enriching lives, adding she is disappointed by the government’s reluctance to act sooner to support it.

“LIke most aspects of the Tory government’s response to this crisis I'm appalled at their lack of care,”

Lynch says. “We are not a charity asking for a hand out, we are an industry that holds a far-reaching societal and cultural impact asking for support through a crisis.”

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