West End’s ex-Saville Theatre purchase strengthens hope for theatre return

Odeon Covent Garden, ex-Saville Theatre (photo courtesy David Simpson)

A company called Yoo Capital has bought the Odeon (ex-Saville Theatre in the West End for around £30million, it was recently announced.

Opened in 1931, designed by the noted firm of T P Bennett & Sons, the originally 1400-seater mid-sized venue was in theatrical use until 1970, when it was remodeled as a twin-screen cinema, split horizontally, as which it continues today.

Thankfully Camden Council rejected several recent attempts to get permission to gut the building for a 90+ room hotel adding extra floors to the building. A recent inspection showed that there was much more of the original interior still existing than originally thought, with quite possibly more to be uncovered as the 70s additions are stripped away.

This is the second time that we have heard of Yoo Capital in relation to London theatre; they are also one of the investors behind the new complex at Olympia which will build a large, brand new theatre which Trafalgar Entertainment will lease. Interesting too that Trafalgar have expressed interest in the Saville building before, so this may signal that the renovation of the Saville may well be run by Trafalgar.

The most easily appreciated original elements are on the original facade which has an incredibly detailed bas-relief frieze by sculptor Gilbert Bayes. Measuring 129 feet in length, depicting ‘Drama Through the Ages’ with representations of ‘St. Joan’, ‘Imperial Roman Triumphal Procession’, ‘Harlequinade’ and ‘War Plays’ etc. Sections of this frieze were displayed at the Royal Academy in 1930-1931, prior to their installation on the building. Along the top of the façade are a series of plaques, again sculpted by Gilbert Bayes, which represent ‘Art Through the Ages’.

This lengthy, arresting frieze remains intact and is Grade II listed.

Original auditorium of the Saville Theatre in 1931. Courtesy Martin Clark, via Ken Roe

No doubt we will hear more about this interesting development in the months ahead.

Bargains galore at the theatre or at home – LONDON THEATRE WEEK runs till September 5th

Following on from August’s promotion KIDSWEEK, here’s another promotion to entice you back into those comfy theatre seats for a bit of much-missed entertainment.

You’ll need to book by September 5th but the offers carry on through selected dates in September and beyond. While there are a widely varying amount of seats available, it’s worth taking a look to see what you can find for a first – or second – visit.

Here is a link to one of the suppliers for London Theatre Week. Find bargain tickets here

There certainly seems to be a bit of volatility in booking patterns at present, and offers to entice folk back will probably keep popping up this side of Christmas.

However, if you’re feeling ready to go back these offers may just help you.

For guidance on how the theatres are welcoming you back, please have a read of my How To Go To The Theatre Safely article which you can find here

And the “at home” bit? Well, if you aren’t feeling quite ready to get back to your favourite seats in person, here’s a reminder you can enjoy a 7-day free trial of all the brilliant shows on BroadwayHD.com in the comfort of your own home. More details here

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

VIEWS: “So great to be back!” – West End theatres first audiences report…

If there’s anyone reading this who is feeling a little unsure about returning to theatre, let me assure you that you are not alone. Many people have contacted me over the last few weeks asking about how it’s all going, are the protocols in place working, how do people feel, etc. So this seemed like a good time to take a survey some of those who have already made their way into our West End theatres. So I did. And here are the major takeaways from what they all said. Respondents visited a sample of all the West End theatre groups which are currently open and showing work, and the feedback is intended to give you a general overview, as opposed to a theatre-by-theatre approach.

Did you have instructions when to arrive on your tickets? All respondents said that their confirmation email containing their e-tickets outlined when doors would open, where to enter, and what time they needed to be seated by.

What were your feelings of anticipation of returning to the theatre? The general response was that they were really looking forward to returning, particularly supporting the industry and enjoying a night out after so many months away from live theatre.

What were your feelings upon arrival at the theatre? One respondent responded they felt a little cautious, but the rest said they felt absolutely fine, and were eagerly anticipating their show.

Were there temperature checks/bag searches/any other entry processes? If so, were they conducted well? Anything they could improve upon? All respondents reported that Front of House processes were very well managed, and that there were separate queues, depending on where in the theatre one was sitting. There was unanimous praise for the helpful staff on hand to guide patrons to the correct queue. At all venues surveyed, our respondents were asked to scan the NHS Covid check-in QR code, but there were few temperature checks reported. All of the surveyed theatres were operating bag searches before entering the theatre, and hand sanitisers were noted as being widely available throughout all the theatres surveyed. Audiences were specifically instructed to keep masks on at all times when not drinking, and staff were reported as wandering the aisles throughout to ensure compliance. Some were reported as carrying signs to remind people about wearing masks.

Did you have any ticket issues? One respondent mentioned having trouble accessing her ticket PDF on her phone, and so she was redirected to the Box Office where paper tickets were made available. Respondent noted that the staff were very helpful and unflustered by this.

Re scanning the NHS QR code, did you each have to scan or could one person do it for your party? Each person had to scan separately. Patrons who didn’t have the app were asked to manually complete a form which were readily available on entry to the theatre.

How were the staff? Were there more than you expected or less of them? Staff were very friendly and helpful and clearly delighted to be back – but also very vigilant with ensuring mask compliance throughout. It was noted that staff were doing a great job, being firm but friendly and helpful. It was also noted that there were significantly more Front of House staff than previously seen around venues.

Any issues around queuing? One respondent had to queue to buy a programme, but was not fazed by this.

How was navigating your way around the building? Very easy, with clear signage. One respondent noted that “Pre-pandemic there was always a sense of rushing in the foyers, but this was all well-ordered and good-humoured”

Any problems? None reported

Any issues with your seats or surroundings? No issues, with appropriate seats blocked off to ensure social distancing at all venues surveyed.

How full was the theatre? Very mixed reactions to this one. The lowest was from a respondent who reported around 35% of socially-distanced capacity for their performance, albeit in the first week of reopening, on Friday. Several more mentioned varying percentages, up to 100% of socially-distanced capacity for a Saturday matinee in week two of reopening.

What was “the buzz” like? Several people noted the reduced numbers affected the “buzz” in the auditorium, but for several that was compensated by the excitement of those who were there. Very few reported any feelings of nervousness or anxiety, perhaps a sign that the Front of House teams are succeeding in helping people feel comfortable, by being so vigilant and friendly. All respondents described a level of “comeback high” at the end of their performance, a step towards normality that all were grateful for.

Did your show have an interval? Was it well-managed by the staff? Several shows had an interval and overall it was reported that they were well managed, with staff and patrons being mindful and kind.

Any issues around loos/queuing/bars/etc ? No major issues, with all mentioning that patrons were bring sensible and considerate, especially in queuing for the loos, still sadly an issue for the ladies. One respondent noted an issue at the bar – “restrictions meant only one person in each party could buy drinks from the bar to prevent crowding. A gentleman went to the bar to buy 3 mini bottles of wine/bubbly and was told he couldn’t take glass back into the theatre, and had to pour these into glasses before returning, however the glasses themselves weren’t big enough to hold the volume of liquid in each bottle, and he struggled to physically carry these back”.

Another respondent noted the strict queuing system for the bars at her show’s interval. “It was just like going to the bank!” she said, “personally, I think this is a brilliant idea that should be kept.”

Were there any issues with leaving the theatre? None reported.

What was your overall impression of the theatre’s handling of the safety processes and procedures. Overall we would say staff had been very well briefed and protocols were good

Would you recommend a theatre trip to others? “Yes, absolutely!” was the unanimous response from all those surveyed. One respondent mentioned “Although the theatre was relatively empty we more than made up for it in encouragement and appreciation of the performers, and it was such a lovely evening.”

Any tips on what to look out for? Issues to avoid? Nothing specific was noted by any of the respondents.

Conclusions My thanks to all the respondents for giving me their views and sharing them with all of us. It certainly appears that West End theatres are doing a splendid job of welcoming audiences back, taking sensible measures and enforcing them with a professionalism and warmth that the West End is famous for. I hope that these responses will help you make up your own mind about when and how you return to the West End – it has certainly helped me to feel much more confident about getting back to theatre, and Seeing It Safely!