One of my new year resolutions — and one I intend to keep! — is to revitalise this personal website ShentonStage as my primary editorial home this year.
This is borne partly, I admit, of necessity; as the world of arts journalism
has shrunk, I’m also currently effectively homeless, otherwise. This has been brought about both by choice and circumstances: I walked away from one publication in 2019 that I’d been long associated with after a period of prolonged bullying; prior to the pandemic, another publication I’d long worked for got sold to an American company, and with it, editorial control came from New York rather than London, and the new editor had other ideas about the way the coverage would work that didn’t include me (she never actually had the courtesy to formally tell me she wasn’t using me anymore, but after not hearing her for three months, I got the message).
At various times in my career as a theatre critic and journalist over the last two decades I have variously, and sometimes simultaneously, been chief theatre critic for WhatsOnStage, The Sunday Express, The Stage (above left), londontheatre.co.uk (above right), and What’s On in London magazine. The circumstances of my departure from each have been different, but in at least two of them, those opportunities no longer exist. The Sunday Express laid off all its long-term critics in November (though continues to run generic theatre and music copy, which I recently discovered is reprinted in identical form in the Sunday Mirror, a sister title of the Sunday Express in terms of which now owns the title), and What’s On in London magazine long ago ceased publishing. (It’s previous bigger rival Time Out is now also a pale shadow of its former once influential self, but does at least still exist).
Anyway, I will start my renewed commitment to THIS site by posting a daily diary column here, under the “Thought for the Day” tab. I am also planning on a redesign, too….
The botched return of London theatres in November — for the all-too-brief interim between lockdown 2 (during which shows were still allowed to be rehearsed) and the sudden arrival of Tier 4 restrictions being imposed last month (when the re-opened theatres and to shut down again) — has led to a widespread gnashing of teeth in theatre land.
The theatres, of course, were led to believe that they would be safe to re-open, albeit in the modified form that the new restrictions allowed (with 50% of capacity theatres, or 1000 seats, whichever was the lower, thus causing the Palladium, for example, which has 2,286 seats, to oversell its Christmas panto, and have to tell a percentage of the audience who had bought their tickets in good faith that they wouldn’t be able to honour their booking after all.
As Michael Harrison remarked at the time to The Stage, “There is no joined up thinking at all. To go into lockdown, and and encourage rehearsals to keep going and then to announce a tier system is crazier than many of the scenes you will see in one of my pantomimes.” And he said that a result of having to cut back on the seating capacity he thought he had from 1,200 to 1,000, “That effectively means we are sold out but its the most dissatisfying sell out I have ever experienced in my life.”
But now that this experiment has failed so dismally — and with it such new productions as The Comeback at the Noel Coward, Deathdrop at the Garrick, Love Letters at the Haymarket and A Christmas Carol at the Dominion, plus the returns of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Six and Les Miserables (albeit in the modified concert version) — which producers will chance their arm to re-open a show again, if and when the current Tier 4 restrictions are lifted?
It truly makes me think that theatres won’t now be back the vaccine is fully rolled out. And when will that be? Already the government has changed it protocols for the two-vaccine requirement, and instead of the recommended 3 weeks between injections, is now going for a longer gap between them — and even a mix-and-match between the two approved vaccines so far being employed. But as the New York Times has reported, the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) in America have already declared that the vaccines “are not interchangeable” and that “the safety and efficacy of a mixed-product series have not been evaluated. Both doses of the series should be completed with the same product.”
John Moore, a vaccine expert at Cornell University, has pointedly remarked: “There are no data on this idea whatsoever. Officials in Britain seem to have abandoned science completely now and are just trying to guess their way out of a mess.”
So I wouldn’t count on us being safe until the summer at the earliest. That’s another five or six months with every theatre shuttered.
Meanwhile, theatres in Sydney, Australia also returned under new COVID-safety protocols — but as Australian theatre journalist Elissa Blake has asked in a feature in The Guardian, just how safe are these theatres after all? The two theatres at Sydney Opera House — the main house (where a new production of The Merry Widow is playing, pictured above) and the drama theatre — are both implementing compulsory mask wearing from today (amazingly, it wasn’t mandated till now), but theatres in Sydney are also, even more astonishingly, are operating under special social distancing exemptions, which means that they are not required to enforce the recommended 1.5 metre space between patrons. When Disney’s Frozen opens at the city’s Capitol Theatre this month, seating capacity of 85% has been authorised.
Blake’s article quotes epidemiologist Hassan Vally from La Trobe University saying that the level of crowding in a theatre is “an incredible risk with people in close contact for a long period of time indoors, especially if they are not wearing masks”.
As he points out, “Audiences need to behave in a way consistent with the assumption that the person next to you might actually have the virus. You have to have the most distance between groups of people or each person, you want to have your mask on, and you’d rather be at a 90-minute performance than a three-hour performance, if you were sitting next to someone who has Covid. The longer you are exposed to that person the more likely the virus could be transmitted to you. They are the three principles to protect yourself from getting an infection: distance, time and shields [masks].”