Lord Lloyd Webber says his theatre production will open as planned in late June, regardless of coronavirus restrictions, and that he is prepared to be arrested for that decision. But is this really the risk he is taking? Suzanne Gallagher looks at the risks for those in indoor entertainment of breaching coronavirus restrictions.
In a recent interview with the Daily Telegraph, Lord Lloyd Webber insisted that his show must go on. In the face of debate about delaying a move to Stage 4 of the Spring 2021 Roadmap out of lockdown, he implied that his West End show, Cinderella, scheduled to be performed at the Gillian Lynne Theatre from June 25, would go ahead regardless of any such delay.
Lord Lloyd Webber's comments were made at a time of rising infection rates across England and localised outbreaks of the Covid-19 Delta variant across London. He is quoted as saying he is prepared to be arrested for opening the theatre, and that the licence for the theatre could be at risk.
The Gillian Lynne Theatre is a venue with a capacity for 1,024. Under Stage 3 of the Roadmap, in place since 17th May, indoor events are subject to a capacity cap of 1,000 people or 50% of a venue's capacity, whichever is lower. If Stage 3 is extended, and Cinderella has an audience above 50%, Lord Lloyd Webber and his company would be in breach of its licence. What would be the consequences of putting on this show?
A licence to thrill
Under the Licencing Act 2003 ('the Act)'), it is an offence to carry on or attempt to carry on a "licensable activity on or from any premises otherwise than under and in accordance with an authorisation". "Licensable activity" includes "regulated entertainment", and regulated entertainment includes the performance of a play before more than 500 people.
If COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings are extended into July, the licensing authority (Camden Council) will not license the planned performances of Cinderella. If the show must go on, and Cinderella is performed in front of a packed audience, an offence under the Act would be committed.
It is interesting to note that the Act exempts actors and other performers. A person does not commit the offence where their only involvement is their performance in the play. It is an offence targeting those who organise ('carry on, attempt to carry on or knowingly allow') the licensable activity to take place, otherwise than in accordance with a licence.
Assisting and encouraging
Potentially, others may be liable too. Anyone who assists or encourages this offence, meanwhile (potentially including audience members, promoters, or others working in the theatre), could find themselves at risk of breaching the provisions of the Serious Crime Act 2007. If the 'reference offence' is imprisonable, then the 'assisting or encouraging' offence would be too.
A person guilty of the Licensing Act offence is liable to imprisonment for a term of up to six months or a fine. Where the offence is committed by a company, its officers are also liable for conviction where it has been committed with their consent or connivance, or is attributable to their neglect. Lord Lloyd Webber may not be the only person to whom this applies in the case of Cinderella.
How the law is policed
Is it realistic to talk about arrest? Where the police or an authorised person (from the local council) has reason to believe a premises is being or is about to be used for a licensable activity, they can enter premises with a view to seeing whether the activity is being, or is to be, carried on. It is also an offence to intentionally obstruct a police officer or authorised person in exercising this power. A constable may enter and search a premises where he has reason to believe an offence under the Act is being, or is about to be, committed. It would be for the local council to prosecute for any offence under the Act, but they can do so by way of a summons to court. Arrests, though possible in theory, are neither necessary nor likely.
Significantly perhaps, offences of money laundering could also come into play. Where a person or business has committed, assisted or encouraged a breach and made money as a result, those funds may become 'criminal property' under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. This is a serious offence, punishable with up to 14 years' imprisonment, and can also lead to the suspect's bank accounts being frozen. Given how much revenue is generated by West End productions, and how many parties are involved in putting them together, this may turn out to be a more significant impact than the theoretical risk of arrest.
The bigger picture
These issues, of course, do not only affect the question of whether Lord Lloyd Webber can stage a production, or whether he will be arrested. It goes without saying that we all want nothing more than for the show to go on, a return to normality. However, with an imminent announcement expected by the government delaying Step 4 until July, any large-scale event or other activity taking place contrary to the restrictions surely runs a high risk of being met with enforcement action, for the purposes of protecting public health. Those tempted to run the risk of breaking the law may face a rude awakening.
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