The Mercury Theatre: Struggling to Survive Amidst Rising Costs

An artist at work in Spike Island. To keep going the centre needs a cash boost similar to the Covid culture recovery fund .

The Mercury theatre, Colchester Next month, a procession to mark Colchester’s elevation to city status will start at the Mercury theatre, a landmark in the Essex town since 1937 that has recently undergone a £14m upgrade.

Three days later, the curtain will go up on Beauty and the Beast, this year’s Christmas panto, with 70% of tickets already sold.

Coming after two years of Covid closures and financial stress, things seem to be looking up for the Mercury. So why does Steve Mannix, its chief executive, warn of a “crisis point” by Easter?

The environmentally friendly building is facing a huge increase in its annual energy bills, from £38,000 last year to up to £120,000 in 2022-23.

The cost of materials for sets and costumes, all made in-house, has risen 30%. Stock for its bar and cafe has also gone up.

And its 118 hardworking and loyal staff, understandably, would like a pay rise.

Meanwhile, says Mannix, its audiences are also feeling the pinch.

“They’re booking late, and less frequently. We’re choosing very carefully what to programme. We’re looking at discounting tickets, but we don’t have infinite resources.

We’re crossing our fingers a lot.” Harriet Sherwood .

Spike Island contemporary art centre, Bristol .

When he crunched the numbers on projected energy costs for the coming year, Robert Leckie said: “it just felt like, here we go again”.

Leckie is director of the Spike Island arts complex in Bristol – a large post-industrial space that hosts galleries, co-working spaces for creative industries, commercial business tenants, artists’ studios and the University of the West of England’s fine art programme.

To heat the leaky 1970s former tea-packing warehouse has historically cost £75,000-£80,000 a year, or about 5-8% of their total budget, said Leckie.

“But we’re forecasting this year that it’s going to at least triple to around £240,000. That’s easily £150,000 that we just don’t have.”

To put that in context, the organisation received £250,000 a year from the Arts Council as a national portfolio organisation, designed to support areas that have little cultural provision.

“Having come through Covid and successfully navigated a very, very difficult situation, it feels borderline absurd to be in a situation again where you are having to find huge additional savings on the basis of something which feels so beyond your control,” he said.

What the organisation needs to keep going is a significant, sectorspecific injection of emergency cash similar to the pandemic’s culture recovery fund, he said.

“If the government don’t want museums or galleries, or studio providers to fold, that is going to be necessary. The scale of this is absolutely in line with what we faced during Covid.”

Truthfully, however, “I don’t feel that’s likely. But you have to hope.”

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