May 11: Are audiences going to return to the theatre?

Mark ShentonInclude in homepage slide?, Thought of the dayLeave a Comment

And how quickly?

As theatre next week starts to finally edge cautiously out of a full lockdown of over five full months, plus only very intermittent appearances in the nine months before that, the question arises will the audiences be there for it?

I’ve already pointed out here how slow advance sales seem to be for the return of Les Miserables (in the concert version; perhaps audiences are waiting for the full production again before spending the same money to see a reduced edition) and the premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella (but perhaps audiences need to know if its any good, first, before spending money on it).

This weekend I spotted another ominous sign: The Mousetrap, which used to proudly boast (back in the day of classified ads in the papers) how it never offered discounts in any way, shape or form, is promoting a 50% off tickets on all prices (not just the routine top price offer that some other producers sometimes make) for its opening weeks. (And be aware that these opening weeks are being staged with social distancing in place, so there are fewer seats to be had to start with; yet they’re still pushing out an effort to sell what IS actually on offer).

In a comment piece in the Sunday Times Culture on the weekend, Jonathan Dean wondered aloud whether cinemas can win us back, or whether the rise of watching new releases at home may be irreversible.

“The big screen is wonderful. Sticky floors. Body odour. The part you miss because the nearest lavatory is leaking. However, this year we have been shown an alternative, one in which we snuggle on sofas, order a takeaway and invite Hollywood into our living rooms, for half the price.

Peter Rabbit 2: the Runaway is out next week. That would be about £50 for a family of four, given transport, tickets and the inevitable popcorn.Would anyone turn down a stream-at-home option for £20 in total? In a fight of convenience very sun expense the former always wins and, besides, we are a habit-based people and months of absence do not always make the heart grow fonder — they can make the heart move on.”

With films, of course, you DO have options; they’re an on-demand service, and even if you go to see them in person, you can choose the time and place and seat you want to sit in, all for the same price as everyone else in the same cinema, as personal taste demands (I like to be close-up to a big screen; it magnifies the intensity of the experience, but some prefer the longer view). Yes, the act of watching a film amongst an audience becomes a shared experience — you may gasp or laugh at the same times as others — but nothing you do will change what the film does. It’s already in the can.

Theatre, however, demands liveness; indeed, that’s its DNA. It can’t really be bottled and captured and reprised at will — you need to be in the room where it happens, at the time it is happening, to enjoy it fully. The last year has seen a lot of theatre migrating to offer itself online, whether live-streamed — so instead of being in the room where it happens you’re in another room of your own choosing as it does so — or pre-recorded. Though the former has the frisson of liveness in the awareness that this moment is being performed to THIS audience right now, you’re still not THERE in the room, which is the essence of live theatre to me.

And sure, I see that streamed theatre is a democratising force for good, in the sense that it can reach a lot more people than conventional performances, and across a potentially global reach, whether playing to 120 people at Southwark Playhouse, 250 at the Donmar Warehouse or even 2,000+ at the London Coliseum. But one thing that the last 14 months away from most theatre has taught me is that those online versions are a mostly poor substitute for the real thing. There are occasional benefits: you’ll get close-up views you’d be deprived in the theatre, unless you’re sitting in the front row, and sometimes views from the wings or above the stage (as in the Hamilton filming available on Netflix) that an audience in the theatre would never see.

So of course I can’t wait to be back in the theatre. And yes, I’ll be back there next week: I’ve been double vaccinated (and just in time: my third vaccination was two Saturdays ago, so by the time I’m back in a theatre next week, I’ll have the full three weeks immunity from that second dose).

I’m currently booked into six shows next week: two of them new musicals in the Turbine’s New Musical Theatre Festival, a West End first night for Cruise, Rob Houchen in a solo concert at Cadogan Hall, one of the two Roles We’ll Never Play concerts at the Vaudeville, and the return of the theatrical installation Flight to the Bridge Theatre.

I could, additionally, next week also choose to see a new play opening at the Bush, and in the West End, catch the return of Death Drop (I missed the original opening just before the last lockdown, after making a calculation whether it was a show I wanted to risk my life on seeing, and deciding against it), or go again to The Mousetrap (which has some great new casting to attract me back), Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Six and the aforementioned Les Miserables — The Staged Concert (plenty of tickets available!)

Also, at least initially, theatres will still be operating with socially distanced seating, as we had before the vaccines arrived. So the risks should be low. But audiences are, no doubt, being cautious; plus perhaps there aren’t just as many people about as before. Many will still be working from home, so heading into town to see a show won’t automatically be on their radar. And the tourists, of course, haven’t returned yet, either, with much of the world still cut off from us (and we from them, for all but a handful of countries).

The next few weeks are going to prove challenging for the West End and other theatres around the UK as it attempts to rebuild its audiences; but this period may prove to be a chance for audiences to show the West End what it actually wants.