Nuffield Southampton Theatres (NST), a major cultural institution in the region and beyond, is to permanently close. Eighty-six staff roles have been made redundant by the closure, one of the starkest signs yet of the escalating damage done to the UK’s theatre industry during the coronavirus crisis.
The theatre, which has run for more than 50 years, went into administration in May after suffering a severe drop in ticket sales from its temporary closure during the pandemic and uncertainty about its reopening date. Buyers were sought from the south-coast office of Smith & Williamson, who said it had “received 30-plus expressions of interest, with 19 non-disclosure agreements signed before applications were whittled down to four potential buyers”. A joint statement by Southampton City Council, Arts Council England and University of Southampton said that none of the potential buyers “demonstrated the level of sector and local knowledge, business sustainability or strategic experience required to deliver a resilient and collaborative model for the communities of Southampton, and all contained a significant level of risk”.
NST comprises venues at the University of Southampton’s Highfield campus and at a new £32m hub in Guildhall Square in the city centre. In 2015, it was named “regional theatre of the year” by the Stage newspaper. Its recent acclaimed productions have drawn on local stories such as Howard Brenton’s The Shadow Factory, about the production of Spitfires, and SS Mendi, about the sinking of a South African ship in Southampton waters.
Smith & Williamson’s administrator Greg Palfrey said: “This is a sad day for the theatre industry in the UK, bringing the final curtain down on nearly 60 years of history of NST as a venerable performing arts institution in Southampton. Regrettably, we have no choice but to make all 86 staff redundant, bar a handful retained in the short term to help with us with the administration, as NST can no longer be sold as a going concern. Our thoughts are very much with employees and their families, as well as freelance artists and theatre-makers.”
On Twitter, the playwright James Graham expressed sympathy for the theatre’s staff and its local audience, and observed that after decades of investment, training and serving its community, NST had “just needed shortfall funding while closed and it didn’t come in time”.
UK culture secretary Oliver Dowden has come under increasing pressure from the industry in recent days to provide emergency funding for theatres. A government spokesperson stated last week: “We are doing all we can to support these industries through government grants, loans, the furlough scheme and the Arts Council’s £160m emergency response package. We are also considering ways in which we may be able to support it further on top of the unprecedented financial assistance we have already provided.”
Leicester’s Haymarket theatre went into liquidation in May. Redundancy processes have commenced at Theatre Royal Plymouth, Birmingham Hippodrome and Horsecross Arts, the creative organisation and charity behind Perth Concert Hall and Perth theatre. Earlier this week, the Royal Exchange in Manchester, one of the UK’s most celebrated theatres, announced that it faces making up to 65% of its permanent roles redundant. Norwich Theatre Royal has announced that more than half of its workforce is at risk of redundancy, with the chief executive Stephen Crocker saying he was “shocked and angry” that the government was “standing idle” and the industry “is being allowed to fade into dust”.
Southampton’s other major theatre venue, the Mayflower, will remain closed until 10 December. Michael Ockwell, its chief executive, said: “We are making some very tough decisions with our operation and it is unlikely that we will be able to offer Ovation, our restaurant service, when we return.” The Mayflower is a charitable organisation that receives no direct income from Arts Council England or the government; 96% of its income comes from ticket and ancillary sales.