Andrew Lloyd Webber has warned that the arts are at the “point of no return” following the pandemic.
The composer and theatre impresario said it is economically “impossible” to run theatres with social distancing.
He said the Government had given him “no satisfactory answer” over “anomalies”, such as why people can fly on a plane but not attend the theatre without social distancing.
Lord Lloyd-Webber told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee: “We simply have to get our arts sector back open and running,”
Britain is a “leader in world theatre” and should be given the green light to “demonstrate how we can reopen”, he said.
“We are at the point of no return really.”
Lord Lloyd-Webber cited an acquaintance, “one of the finest viola players I know”, now working in a supermarket.
“There comes a point now when we really can’t go on much more,” he said.
The Government rescue package was “giving money to buildings to keep the lights off” and going down a “bottomless pit” instead of “getting the buildings open”, he added.
He spent £100,000 on a pilot project, trialling measures at the London Palladium, in the hope that it could show how they can open at full capacity safely.
“I am absolutely confident that the air in the London Palladium and in all my theatres is purer than the air outside,” he said.
Hinting at the consequences on the industry if there is not more support from the Government, he said his production of Cinderella might have to open “where people are being a little more helpful”.
And following a quip that he could stage a production on an aeroplane, he joked: “We did think of turning the London Palladium into a garden centre at one point.”
Rebecca Kane Burton, chief executive of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s theatres, said recent months had been “devastating and catastrophic” for the sector.
“It’s a really bad, catastrophic time and we need to find a way out of it,” she added.
It was “disheartening” and “frustrating” that their “pilot wasn’t later seen as a way to getting full reopening.”
Asked about possible reasons why the purpose behind the pilot changed, she said “there was a nervousness about pubs opening and wanting to see what the impact of that was”.
And she added: “We need the time to plan. We can’t switch on theatre like a tap. Christmas is hanging on the balance as we speak.”
Lucy Noble, artistic and commercial director of the Royal Albert Hall and chair of the National Arenas Association, told the committee that the Government’s £1.57 billion rescue package did not turn out to be “what it was hailed to be”.
“The Royal Albert Hall was hailed as one of the crown jewels that this package would save,” she said.
“We have been told we are not eligible for any of the grant at all.
“We are only eligible to take a loan. We’ve already taken £10 million worth of loans. We’d rather not get into any more debt.
“I don’t think it’s quite ended up being what it was hailed to be. People saw that announcement and thought, ‘the Royal Albert Hall is OK now’.
“So the philanthropic gifts have stopped coming in because they think we have been saved by the Government, when in fact we haven’t at all.”
If the Hall cannot open fully until Christmas next year then we are in a “serious” and “mothballing” situation, she warned, and it was getting to “crunch point”.
Asked about holding the Proms without an audience in the venue, she said the Government’s announcement on allowing socially distanced, indoor audiences “came too late”.
Venues “are on their knees financially,” she added.
Melvin Benn, the managing director of promoter Festival Republic, told MPs “you can’t have festivals with social distancing” and that he believed testing could be the solution.
“I felt that from day one, that the Government really were hoping that the vaccine would come through… and that would solve the problem,” he said.
One MP on the committee read out an email which was sent from an actor, saying that “not one West End actor or performer is in furlough”.
“From a performer’s point of view, Rome is now burnt and we are living in the cinders,” the actor said.
A DCMS spokeswoman said: “We are working flat out to support our world class performing arts sector through challenging times. Our unprecedented £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund builds on £200 million in emergency public funding to stabilise organisations, protect jobs and ensure work continues to flow to freelancers. This funding will support organisations of all sizes across the country, including theatres.
“Performances indoors and outdoors can now take place with a socially distanced audience and we are working at pace with the industry on innovative proposals for how full audiences might return safely as soon as possible. We also want the public to show their support by visiting theatres as they start to reopen.”