The show goes on in London's West End, but for how long?

by V�ronique DUPONT
The show goes on in London's West End, but for how long?

The bright lights of London's West End theatre district were undimmed this weekend with punters lining up to catch the biggest shows, but the industry faces dark times ahead with a coronavirus lockdown looming.

Britain has yet to formally announce a ban on public gatherings, and thousands packed the historic theatres on Friday, snatching what may be their last chance to enjoy a memorable night out for some time.

"You can't always stay at home, and I have my gel to keep my hands clean," joked John, a slightly nervous Tina Turner fan as he took his seat for the London musical about the US singer.

"I trust the authorities and scientists who said theatres can stay open," said one elderly ticketholder, who had come to see "Tina" to celebrate 50 years together with his wife.

Nearby, people queued in front of the Lyceum Theatre's Greek colonnades for a showing of "The Lion King", including a dozen people gathered around a young woman carrying a "30-years-old!" balloon.

Britain has been criticised for not following other European countries and banning large gatherings, with government advisers arguing that prematurely rolling out measures could do more harm than good.

But the government is expected to take the next step on Tuesday, a move that will send the sector into crisis.

"The coronavirus pandemic could deal a 'hammer blow' to the UK music industry" the industry organisation UK Theatre recently warned in a letter to the culture minister.

"It will hit not just those who are directly employed in our industry, but the wider supply chain such as caterers and other retailers who depend on our sector for work," it added.

- 'Millions at stake' -

Around 15 million people annually take in a West End show, according to official figures, resulting in box office revenue of more than �765 million ($1.2 million, 1.1 million euros) over the 19,000 performances.

Elsewhere in the entertainment sector, Britain's Cineworld cinema chain, the second largest in the world, saw its stock price collapse last week, reflecting growing concerns that the outbreak presented it with an existential threat.

The releases of new James Bond film and the sequel to the family hit "Peter Rabbit" have already been shelved and many operators and studios are struggling to find a way through the crisis.

"There are millions at stake," said one producer.

Authorities in New York have already closed all Broadway shows, and a similar move in Britain would lay waste to months -- or even years -- of work, hitting theatres with a loss in revenue that cannot be recouped.

In an attempt to reassure ticketholders, West End theatres installed disinfectant gel dispensers everywhere and banned backstage visits.

But the outbreak was already beginning to bite on Friday as restrictions on international travel, particularly a ban on flight from the United States, threatened the tourist dollar.

"I was afraid that my plane would be cancelled, especially after Trump stopped the flights," explained Frenchwoman Alyzee Ganiou, 27, who nervously tapped her phone while waiting for a friend minutes before showtime.

The famous Sadler's Wells theatre issued a rallying cry for the industry, saying that "during times of uncertainty and anxiety, theatre can provide a welcome opportunity to cheer up and escape."

Thousands packed London's historic theatres on Friday, snatching what may be their last chance to enjoy a memorable night out for some time�