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.

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