VIEWS: #BackOnStage – the comebacks – and the dilemmas

So, the London biggies are back. PHANTOM, LION KING and several others have joined HAIRSPRAY and LES MIS: THE CONCERT in taking the plunge and are now #BackOnStage, open for business, to capacity (or near) audiences (Scotland opens to capacity from August 9th). And their audiences are responding emotionally, understandably. It’s great to have them back.

But in many ways, things are not the same. We have seen shows switch theatres due to colliding incomings and rental expiries, shows cancel performances due to Covid positives in the cast, big shows taking on extra performers to cover Covid-related absences, and so much more. The ever-changing impact on the financials is almost incalculable. It must be like trying to build a house on a trampoline. Currently THE PRINCE OF EGYPT is on an extended stand-down, planned to return on 12th August.

In terms of productions themselves, PHANTOM has a refurbished production, with stylistic alterations and a simpler, slightly less cunning set which is not as changed as some panicky social media lead people to believe. Further, it has had its orchestra almost halved (modern technology enables more pre-recorded tracks to augment and enhance the live musos). The theatre’s refurbishment of the auditorium has thrown up one surprise in that there are new, extra seats filling what was once a handy centre half-aisle in the stalls, adding a couple of dozen top (or near top)-price tickets to the capacity.

This has happened not only at Her Majesty’s, but also at the beautiful (and otherwise very positive) refurbishment at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where the stalls cross-aisle has gone. Both of these will be causing more problems for FoH staff trying to get guests and VIPs in and out as quickly as possible for entertaining (although granted at age 35, PHANTOM is unlikely to have many more VIPs (professional or paying customers) needing entertaining). And, it should be noted, reduced aisle space results in slower evacuation times in case of emergency. Perhaps ways in which VIPs are to be accommodated are changing too. It might be wise for them to consider this.

The story at Theatre Royal Drury Lane is more complex. The positive changes in the auditorium on each level have significantly raised the rake of the seating, enhancing sight lines which can only be universally welcomed, especially for the youngsters soon to be swarming all over FROZEN when its starts previews later this month.

Its not just large theatres who have battled with Covid. Small theatres such as the Turbine and Hope Mill Theatre have both had to cancel performances this week due to current draconian Covid isolation rules which further jeopardises their financials and future operations.

In the absence of across-the-board-government regulation, the West End has had to find its own way, still lacking any insurance system that would protect shows in the same way as film and TV production. Aiming to show some leadership, now we have confirmation that ATG Theatres and Delfont Mackintosh Theatres are now requiring Covid certification for attendees to their shows. Ah, but…. Except for under 18s, who can “just say” that they haven’t got Covid. Like the Scouts’ promise. Hmmm….And there is now the “suggestion” that you wear a mask inside the venue, not a requirement.

I wonder, how different would the death tolls on our roads be today if all those years ago, motorists had been “requested” but not required to wear a seat belt, and “advised” not to drink and drive?

This in comparison to New York, admittedly not yet back itself, but where last week the Broadway League announced all audience members must have been vaccinated before entering any of the 41 Broadway theatres, bolstered a few days later by Mayor Bill de Blasio issued a mandate requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination to gain entry to performance venues. Concerted action of the like we have yet to see.

Unlike New York, ours is not as robust a system of management; although I quite understand theatres have to be seen to be doing something. They are clearly in an utterly impossible position, sandwiched between the incompetence of the government and its “nicely-nicely” guidelines (which most will ignore without a second thought) and the cold, hard fact that a deadly, global pandemic is still raging amongst us. Yes, the case numbers have more or less halved – but so has the quantity of testing!

And in amongst all of this, let’s think about things from the point of view of those who make it all work – the audiences. After 18 months of fear and caution, it is unreasonable to expect audiences to simply snap back to acting (and reacting) the way they did pre-pandemic. Pandemic habits are the new normal for many millions of people, and that includes many previous theatregoers, and I suggest they will take many more months to adapt. Box office figures are very mixed right now, and it will take time for audiences to return to full confidence. Theatres that listen carefully to their audiences are more likely to succeed; those offering socially-distanced performances in their mix will help to encourage the anxious to return in a measured and compassionate way.

Audiences have their own internal dynamics, made infinitely more complex by Covid. Who has had it as opposed to those who have not; those who willingly wear masks against those who will not; those who are older as opposed to those who are younger; the potential for clashes are manifold.

Let’s remember that audiences come to theatres for escape. Sadly the one thing no-one can fully escape right now is Covid. And the connection between people’s innermost feelings of safety and security and their potential to be compromised in a crowded place where they do not feel fully in control will take a long time to play out.

Finally, an unfortunate piece of timing, I truly feel for parents, that in this month of Kidsweek, when kids are rightly longing to get back to normal, they are the ones who have to navigate all this confusion in a way that doesn’t disappoint their little ones and doesn’t also trigger their own anxieties and uncertainties. Added to the facts that a significant proportion of Covid is being spread unwittingly by youngsters who haven’t even had the chance of vaccination. And when you get to that theatre, at the appointed time, can you imagine going to and from your seats for ice cream, or to take that sudden trip to the loo you hadn’t planned for? I sincerely wish all you parents well, as well as the valiant front of house staff at all open theatres, who are doing a great job trying to enforce the unenforceable.

KIDSWEEK is back with bargains galore!

The first sign of a proper return to theatre appears in KIDSWEEK, the misleadingly-titled month (!) of August when children can get to see one of a range of top West End shows Free when they visit with a full-paying adult.

Promoted by Official London Theatre, the promotion happens across the whole month, with lots of shows to suite every taste being available.

This year there are no add-on activities as in previous years -owing to the continuing caution over Covid -but there are online activities that your youngsters can engage in instead.

You can find out more at the Kidsweek page here

Shows to look forward to in August 2019

Welcome to August’s show highlights. Here are my picks of the most interesting shows that you can find around London and the UK.

As you’ll know, August brings us the Edinburgh Festival where the austerely lovely maiden-aunt of a city becomes a kind of endless lasagne of performance , with hundreds of shows in every conceivable space. Good luck to everyone up there! But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do or see in the rest of the country. Oh no! Just take a look below for a wide range of ideas to suit your own tastes. Enjoy!

Off-West End

SHACKLETON’S CARPENTER , Harry McNish, was pivotal in ensuring the survival of those who went on Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated 1914-17 Antarctica expedition.

When the Endurance sank, leaving the crew of 27 stranded, McNish, brilliant carpenter and shipwright, defied Shackleton, but went all the way with him and ensured all 28 were saved.

For all his bravery and ingenuity, McNish was – oddly- one of the very few who were never awarded the Polar Medal. His health impaired by these shattering Polar experiences, he emigrated to New Zealand where his condition worsened, and he could only get dock work. Now, alone and destitute, one still night on the dockside, in his fevered mind he relives the Endurance expedition, pitting himself once more against Shackleton whilst still plagued by the ghosts of his past. Playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 17 August.

“It would be abnormal if someone didn’t die.
You know, that would be very strange.
We’d pay a lot of attention, I think, if that happened.”

THE COLOURS is the latest play from Harriet Madeley, who gave us the highly-praised THE LISTENING ROOM, which was a collection of interviews around the effects of violent crime. In this show, five people lie on a Welsh beach, moving through fantasy, memory and reality as they process the most profound yet ordinary of experiences: nearing the end of life.

As they describe moments from their lives, dig into their present experience and reflect on what the future has in store, we are taken on a rollercoaster ride of the human imagination… and transported all the way to the brink; as far as the eye can see.

THE COLOURS was created from interviews conducted with patients at Ty Olwen Hospice in Swansea and Velindre Cancer Centre in Cardiff. THE COLOURS plays at Soho Theatre Upstairs until 17 August.

Please Note: this play deals with medical themes and life-limiting illness.

Until Sat August 3rd. Something different! OUT OF THE WINGS Festival presents its fourth annual festival, exploring untapped theatre from the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking world. Over five days, a series of staged readings bring to life new English translations of works by playwrights from six countries, alongside workshops, talks and events, in celebration of theatre in translation. At the Omnibus Theatre, Clapham. More information and tickets here.

Until August 10th. Howard Zinn was an American historian, professor and social activist, widely considered one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. His book, A People’s History of the United States, has sold two million copies and is read in schools throughout the U.S. THE TIME OF OUR LIES explores Zinn’s personal history, including being a soldier who dropped bombs on Royan, France in WWll. That fateful moment troubled him for the rest of his days and shaped the man who would become a moral compass for the United States in ways that are more relevant today than ever before. 

Starring Daniel Benzali as Howard Zinn, and directed by Che Walker, THE TIME OF OUR LIES is a battle cry for democracy, transparency, and inclusion. The play embodies Zinn’s battle for social justice and his lifelong struggle against false historical narratives written by those in power that poison the well for true democracy. At the Park Theatre.

Extended to August 3rd and then opening in the West End 27 Sep-4 Jan – If it’s laughter you’re after then you can’t go far wrong with Michael Frayn’s NOISES OFF, returning to the scene of its first success in 1982 at the Lyric, Hammersmith. In this new production, directed by Jeremy Herrin, Meera Syal stars as Dotty, ageing actress who has sunk her life savings into a cheap production of a tired sex comedy, hoping that a quick UK tour will bag her a comfy retirement pot. Naturally, things go awry in ever-more disastrous ways, from the set to the cast to the sardines, as we see the show deteriorate from the rehearsal to the insanity of the end of the tour. With dizzying split-second timing, physical comedy and an incredibly complex plot, at its best this is a show to relax and enjoy to the full! Now where did I put those sardines……..

Playing now at the Kiln Theatre in Kilburn, the Olivier and Tony Award nominated musical BLUES IN THE NIGHT is in its first major London revival in 30 years . Directed by Susie McKenna and starring Olivier Award winners Sharon D. Clarke (Death of A Salesman, Caroline or Change, Ghost, Amen Corner) and Clive Rowe (Guys and Dolls, Carousel), Blues in the Night is a steamy compilation of 26 hot and torchy blues numbers that frame the lives and loves of four residents of a downtown hotel. Featuring soul-filled songs by blues and jazz icons Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen and many more, it runs to 7 September – and no doubt continuing elsewhere if the ever busy Ms Clarke will find time….

Playing at the Soho Theatre until Aug 24th, THE VIEW UPSTAIRS is the European premiere of Max Vernon’s new musical following its off-Broadway season, here starring John Partridge and Tyrone Huntley, amongst a really first-rate cast of powerful performers. It all starts when Millennial fashion designer Wes buys an abandoned building, not knowing that this forgotten gem was the UpStairs Lounge, a vibrant ‘70s gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans, starting an exhilarating journey of seduction and self-exploration in the summertime heat with the rush of lust, sex and incense mixed in the air. Filled with a collection of beautiful love songs and power rock ballads, this is a hopeful musical about friendship, community, how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. Although the book could be further developed, it’s the music that will win you- it’s carefully-crafted and authentically 70s-sounding. Read my review of the show here.

If you love the Latin crossover music of Gloria Estefan you will enjoy ON YOUR FEET! It has had mixed but mostly positive reviews, unanimous in the musical content of the show. It looks good and sounds just great, with a brilliant band (worth the price of admission alone) who never let the energy flag.

Featuring 26 hits, this Tony Award nominated show ran on Broadway for two years, for over 750 performances. ON YOUR FEET! is the inspiring true love story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan and charts their journey from Cuba to the streets of Miami and finally to international superstardom. Featuring some of the most iconic pop songs of the era, including “Rhythm is Gonna Get You”, “Conga”, “Get On Your Feet”, “Don’t Want To Lose You Now” and “1-2-3” and many more.

ON YOUR FEET! is directed by two-time Tony Award® winner Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots, Legally Blonde), with choreography by Olivier Award-winner Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys) and book by Academy Award® winner Alexander Dinelaris (Birdman).

Now playing at the Coliseum until 31st August, after which it embarks on a UK tour.

Read my review of the show here

Touring the UK

Now nearing the close of this 50th anniversary UK tour, the tribal rock musical HAIR carries on with abandon, starring Jake Quickenden, Marcus Collins and Kelly Sweeney. See it in August in Cologne (Germany) before it returns to the UK to play Glasgow as the last date of its tour.

Magnifique! Achieving the near-impossible task of translating a unique French movie to the stage, and doing so in some style, this UK tour of AMELIE will bring a smile to your lips and warmth to your heart, as we follow our heroine helping others but finding it hardest to help herself. With a tuneful score and dynamic Audrey Brisson as Amelie, this is your passport to joie de vivre. See it in August at Manchester, Bournemouth, Glasgow and Woking . Read my review of the show here

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE is out on a national tour until September. See it in August at Canterbury, Dublin, Oxford and Worcestershire. Read my review of the show here


See 1927’s ***** GOLEM for free – now! Right here….

For fans of innovative company 1927 (THE ANIMALS AND CHILDREN TOOK TO THE STREETS and GOLEM), you will be happy to know that 1927 are giving you a second chance to watch the brilliant show GOLEM, until 8th August. It’s right here, above. Enjoy!

Thanks to 1927 for making this available and wishing success to their new show ROOTS which plays the Edinburgh Festival in August, details here

NT Live Broadcasts

Throughout August across the UK there are Encore screenings of the much-praised National Theatre productions of THE LEHMAN TRILOGY and SMALL ISLAND. To find screenings in your area check out the schedule of NT Live website, details here.

Kidsweek 2019

For the whole of August, a child aged 16 or under can go to any participating London show for free (where tickets are available) as long as they’re accompanied by a full paying adult. Adults can also buy up to two extra children’s tickets at half price… and there are no booking fees!

Find out more and book here

Shows closing

THE STARRY MESSENGER closes August 10th at Wyndham’s Theatre

PRESENT LAUGHTER closes August 10th at the Old Vic

THE END OF HISTORY closes August 10th at the Royal Court Theatre

SMALL ISLAND closes August 10th at the National Theatre

Disney’s ALADDIN closes August 24th at the Prince Edward Theatre

THE BARBER SHOP CHRONICLES closes August 24th at the Roundhouse

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR closes August 24th at the Barbican Centre

THE LEHMAN TRILOGY closes August 31st at the Piccadilly Theatre

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM closes August 31st at the Bridge Theatre