June 16: Welcome to theatrical Groundhog Day…

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…as the lockdown continues….

In what is becoming a wearyingly predictable cycle, Boris Johnson’s latest failure to act fast enough to lockdown the country from the arrival of what is now known as the Delta variant of Covid, which originated in India, has resulted in it becoming the dominant strain of the virus in Britain — with the added problem that it is much more easily transmissible than previous strains.

As actor James Howard tweeted on Monday evening:

And an indignant Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire, whose Trafalgar Entertainment has two shows ready to launch in the next month (Anything Goes at the Barbican and the return of Jersey Boys at their refurbished Trafalgar Theatre), said in a statement reprinted by The Guardian yesterday:

“This delay is yet another bungle from a government that wouldn’t be given a single star in a review of its performance. The confusion and muddled messages are reminiscent of a West End farce.”

So another delay to the “cautious, irreversible” roadmap out of lockdown has inevitably had to be announced, with an extension of Stage Three restrictions for a further month to July 19. At least this much did not come as a surprise, and was actually a relief (for me at least), as the idea that theatres could open to full capacity starting next week was frankly terrifying. Even though I’ve received both doses of the vaccination, sitting cheek-by-jowl beside people whose vaccination status I do not know — and the theatre would not, either — filled me with fear.

By contrast, for the imminent re-opening of Broadway, meanwhile, with a return season of Bruce Springsteen’s solo show Springsteen on Broadway in 11 days time (from June 26), it has been announced that “audience members will be required to provide proof of full COVID-19 vaccination in order to enter the theater.”

Julian Bird, Chief Executive of SOLT and UK Theatre, issued this announcement on Monday:

Perhaps it should speak to the virus instead of the government. Mind you, Andrew Lloyd Webber (as I wrote here last week) thinks that theatres are the one place the virus doesn’t go. In an interview with Dominic Cavendish last week, he stated:

“I’ve seen the science from the tests, don’t ask me how. They all prove that theatres are completely safe, the virus is not carried there. If the Government ignore their own science, we have the mother of all legal cases against them. If Cinderella couldn’t open, we’d go, ‘Look, either we go to the law about it or you’ll have to compensate us’.”

As I, in turn, commented,

Well, if theatres are the one public space where he seems to know “the virus is not carried”, perhaps we should have all taken refuge inside the theatres that have been dark for most of the last 14 months. If they, uniquely, do not allow the virus to transmit between people gathered there, why didn’t Matt Hancock simply move the residents from care homes to the theatre when they were discharged from hospitals, instead of back to their homes where many of them died? But Lloyd Webber seems to know best — and of course, it is motivated by his financial needs. (He’s been slipping a bit in the Sunday Times Rich list). Plus, of course, the urgency of getting his new show open. And a couple of his old shows re-opened.

Also on Monday, in another sign that Boris Johnson only listens to those who (a) shout loudest; and (b) looks after his family, friends, donors and former Conservative peers first, he indicated that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella — due to begin previews on Friday week (June 25), may get special dispensation to open as a ‘test case’.

According to a story in the Daily Telegraph,

Johnson is quoted saying:

Yet again, we see cronyism in action. And a profound self-interest over solidarity with the rest of the sector in Lloyd Webber gaining this exemption.

As director and producer Adam Lenson tweeted as part of a thread on Monday night,

And Joseph Houston, co-founder and artistic director of Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre also tweeted,

Lloyd Webber replied yesterday,

The industry reaction is one of frustration mixed with forbearance. Dominic Cavendish, in a brilliantly swift and wide-ranging canvassing of opinions amongst leading producers that was posted on the Telegraph website on Monday evening before 7pm, quoted such figures as Bill Kenwright calling Monday “the worst day I’ve known in the business,” as well as Michael McCabe, John Brant and Kenny Wax offering more shades of grey.

Meanwhile, another new touring initiative could not have come at a more opportune time: on Monday, English Touring Theatre launched Trailer Story, a travelling outdoor performance space (pictured above) to tour across the UK presenting national and local artistic programming and community events, beginning with a residency in Newcastle city centre July 30-August 1, then at Keswick’s Crow Park from August 5-8.

Performances will be housed in a touring truck, usually used to tour production sets around the country, but reimagined as a space for artists and audiences to meet, built with sustainability at its core and allowing for socially-distanced performances. 

The RSC at Stratford-upon-Avon have also shown prescience in planning their summer production of The Comedy of Errors for a new, specially created outdoor venue, located between the Swan and the Avon (from July 13-September 25, press night July 20).

Other theatres are also happily embracing the outdoors: this week, Chester’s Storyhouse launches its annual Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre season, with The Merry Wives of Windsor (running from June 18-August 30), alongside The Jungle Book (June 19-August 30) and Pride and Prejudice (July 9-August 30). The Dukes at Lancaster are returning to Williamson Park with a season of Grimm Tales: Witches, Wolves, Fairies and Frogs from July 27-August 22.

In a press statement, Dukes artistic director Karen O’Neill commented,

“The Dukes is so excited to be teaming up once again with Williamson Park to bring the fantastic park show back to Lancaster for 2021. After a small break and the forced cancellation in 2020, we are raring to go with this year’s production which has been made to meet all the safety guidelines. There will be a reduced number of tickets this year to support social distancing but all the magic and fun of park shows is still there.”

And talking of a (bitter) kind of fun and the outdoors, over the weekend culture secretary Oliver Dowden made a bit of a clanger when he tweeted about the visit of the Prime Minister’s wife Carrie, US First Lady Jill Biden “and other political spouses” (as Andrew Pierce put it in the Daily Mail) to the Minack Theatre during the G7 summit. Dowden happily — but incorrectly — tweeted that it was one of 650 venues that were helped through Covid with the help of the government’s £2b Culture Recovery Fund.

But the Minack duly replied:

It was said that one of the terms of receiving this funding was for theatres to tweet out their gratitude; but in this case, they correctly replied to the Minister that they had absolutely nothing to be grateful for