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Although this newsletter officially remains on hiatus and will resume publication on Monday September 20 (as I’m on holiday in Barbados!), I’m interrupting my time on the beach for a second time to deliver this bulletin with the reviews of BACK TO THE FUTURE that opened officially at the West End’s Adelphi Theatre on Monday.

But it was not without a last minute drama of its own when its top-billed star Roger Bart tested positive for COVID earlier that day and so missed the official opening; fortunately, many of the ‘overnight’ critics had gone to earlier previews, so had reviewed the show with him in it already. Also lucky: unlike on Broadway where in order to be eligible for the Tony Awards, all actors must be present on an official opening night, we have no such rules over here for our major awards.

And speaking of COVID: I am also using this briefing to renew my concerns about how the theatre industry is dealing with COVID safety in their venues. Especially now that the introduction of COVID passports to ensure that audiences at large-scale indoor events are vaccinated has been delayed by the government, with an announcement yesterday that these and mask mandates may yet come at a later stage if infections accelerate.

Opened Adelphi Theatre, Monday September 13

  • Daily Telegraph (5*, by Dominic Cavendish): “I approached this show (which cost £7.5million) fearing I was set to watch a time-honoured flick become a hideous theatrical experiment gone wrong. I needn’t have worried a nano-second. Excitement builds before curtain-up, the mother-board styled auditorium pulsing with tributaries of light. Then Olly Dobson’s McFly – at 29, a dead-ringer for Fox, and rivalling his zestful charisma – pokes his head into Doc Brown’s gadget-cluttered lair. His simple inquiry ‘Doc?’ gets a cheer of delighted recognition from the crowd. It’s clear that the love brought to the theatre is equalled by the devotion of those behind the project…. It’s a feelgood triumph. Is it the most sophisticated musical around? No, but it’s a no less exhilarating all-American entertainment drive-thru than Hamilton. And it so honours the benign ethos of those 80s blockbuster movies, it almost invites further in-roads into the canon. Next stop, ET?”
  • Daily Mail (5*, by Patrick Marmion): “Back-comb your mullet, snap on your headband and wriggle into your leopard skin leotard. The stage musical of the Eighties’ classic has just screeched into the West End, the tyres of its time-travelling DeLorean leaving six pounds of scorched rubber on The Strand. And there’s really no other way to put it, folks: the show is a blast from the past. Where to begin, with a production that packs more energy than a nuclear reactor?…. Did I even mention the auditorium, clad like a computer circuit board? Or the Star Trek bridge scene after the interval, when we travel at warp speed through the universe in Doc’s sci-fi dream? What about the Batman style ‘biff’ and ‘kerpow’ sound effects for the High School fist fights? Or the hoverboards – yes, there are hoverboards! I could go on, but you’re better off just going.”
  • Evening Standard (4*, by Nick Curtis): “This musical adaptation of Robert Zemeckis’s hit 1985 time-travel movie is enormous fun. Loyal to the story and the larky spirit of the original, it’s been deftly expanded by Zemeckis’s co-writer Bob Gale into a standalone stage work… Let’s be frank: the biggest anxiety was how they’d do the DeLorean, since cars on stage tend to be stationary or ponderous. Happily, the time machine is a triumph of theatrical engineering, instantly recognisable but with an overhaul and an upgrade. Much like the musical itself. Go, enjoy.”
  • Variety (No star rating given, but reads like 4*, at least, by David Benedict):  “In recent decades, numerous musical have arrived in London with outsized production values swamping the material, leading critics to wish for time machines so that they can fast-forward to the inevitable, hugely scaled-down revival in an off-West End house where the writing can be savored. Back to the Future — the Musical is not one of those shows. Despite its many flaws, not least a merely serviceable score, Tim Hatley’s stunning, multi-dimensional design — thrillingly meshing physical production, lighting, projection, sound and hydraulics — lifts what threatened to be a movie retread into a live entertainment triumph…. Is it a great musical? Absolutely not. Is it a great night out? Oh yes. You’ll believe a car can fly.”
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  • The Independent (3*, by Clarisse Loughrey): “Back to the Future is a Russian Doll of nostalgic comforts: through its time-travelling antics, it revels both in a rose-coloured American Fifties and in the vitality of the Eighties. It’s a potent, paradoxical mix – both eternally youthful and yellowed by age, like childhood photos nestled inside a family album. While nothing about the existence of a Back to the Future musical seems surprising (there is always new money to be made out of the old franchises), its success lies largely in how effectively it can mine those feelings. It’s hokey, but rousing too – and the experience of sitting in its audience feels a little like coming home. There’s certainly nothing cheap about this production….. For all the care that’s gone into replicating its source material, what feels most authentic about Back to the Future: The Musical is its capacity for pure spectacle.”=
  • The Guardian (3*, by Afrifa Akbar): “The DeLorean revs, races, lifts off, and gives almost as much backchat to Marty as Knight Rider’s sassy Kitt. Beyond the car’s star turn, this is an eccentric show, directed by John Rando, that is partly an ode to the film but also a tribute act that speaks to its own theatricality… The show seems like a mashup of theatre and film: it begins with Steven Spielberg-style action movie music, while screens are used in filmic ways, including one rolling down for “The End”). The graphics alternatively leave us feeling as if we are inside a giant arcade game or a 3D film, but it is a striking integration of forms nonetheless….. Despite its inventions and its abundant splashiness, it is an odd mishmash of originality and imitation, the DeLorean remaining its biggest star.”
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  • iNews (3*, by Sam Marlowe): “The car is a star, flying over the stalls and even backflipping, with Marty and Doc aboard. It’s easily a match for the film’s hectic adrenaline rush. Once the dazzle of John Rando’s production wears off, though, it all feels a bit pointless.  Just as Tim Hatley’s designs, with their gliding, revolving sets, Finn Ross’s stunning video and Tim Lutkin’s Tron-like LEDs recreate the movie so accurately that they prompt gasps of recognition, the performances are meticulous impersonations of their screen counterparts… By the end, with everyone up and jigging along to the film’s Huey Lewis hit The Power of Love the vibe is determinedly feelgood. We’ve all been here before. But that’s exactly what the fans came for.”
  • Time Out (3*, by Andzrej Lukowski): “This long-gestating musical version of Back to the Future – it has literally taken longer to bring to the stage than all three films took to make – is so desperate to please that the producers would doubtless offer a free trip back in time with every ticket purchase if the laws of physics allowed…. John Rando’s production of a script by the film’s co-creator Bob Gale is so constantly, clangingly OTT that it begins to feel a bit like Back to the Future karaoke: it hits every note, but it does so at a preposterous velocity that often drowns out the actual storytelling…. The essential trouble with making everything OTT is that it threatens to drown out the bits that should stand out. No question, the DeLorean is magnificently done: it’s thrilling just seeing it drive about the stage, let alone when it busts through the temporal barrier… Your enjoyment is going to depend on how up you are for ‘Back to the Future’ cranked to the absolute max for virtually the whole night. Where this musical is going, you don’t need roads. But you might need a good lie down.”
  • The Stage (3*, by Tim Bano):  “Does the musical successfully transport us back to the past, or just leave a trail of flaming tarmac? As so often when the West End gives beloved titles the musical treatment, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Original writer Bob Gale has adapted his creation for the stage, and the emphasis is heavily on the visuals. In Tim Hatley’s design, radiant strips of LED lights emanate into the auditorium in serpentine circuit boards, projection screens meld stunningly with live action to create the effect of barrelling along at 88 miles per hour and, inevitably, central to everything is that lovingly recreated DeLorean. The effect of all this is a strange hybrid, with dashes of Secret Cinema and theme-park ride thrown into the mix. If this spectacle is the future of West End shows, sign me up. There’s just the small problem of everything else.”
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Last week, Joe Biden’s patience finally snapped: tired of playing Mr Nice Guy, he urged American citizens to get vaccinated against COVID — or prepare to sacrifice jobs and other rights. (And he said to those who refuse to follow federal law in obeying mask mandates on planes, “If you break the rules, be prepared to pay. By the way, show some respect”).

Meanwhile, yesterday in Britain, Boris Johnson blundered ineffectually once again, threatening stricter measures only if COVID cases increased into the winter, but not yet enforcing so much as a mask mandate or COVID passports being required for large indoor public events, as had been widely tipped.

I wrote about this in a column here on Sunday, yet again highlighting the more or less complete failure of SOLT and UK Theatre to pick up the government’s slack and bring some consistency and continuity to the approach of theatres to making themselves safe.

On Monday  I wrote to all the major theatre operators in the West End — Delfont Mackintosh, ATG, LW Theatres, Nimax and Trafalgar Entertainment (the latter may only have one London theatre, but are already becoming a major regional player) — as follows.

You may know that I am currently publicly challenging SOLT and UK Theatres on their failure to provide proper leadership on COVID safety protections, hence the fact that each of you are having to make up your own rules as you go along, as there is seemingly no co-ordinated approach across the industry. 

My latest salvo is here, after the government ruled out requiring COVID passports yesterday. As Nick Allott has said in a piece in today’s Guardian,

“We continue to run protocols in the West End in excess of government guidance. But for operational reasons [coronavirus status] checking is intermittent, not universal. The industry needs to agree a standard practice. Theatre is back and we are fighting hard to keep it back.”

Me, too – hence, my campaign.  I *want* theatre to survive; and I *want* to be able to keep going to the theatre! The government’s own advice when Covid restrictions were lifted was this: “While no situation is risk free, there are actions we can take to protect ourselves and others around us. We expect and recommend that members of the public continue to wear face coverings in crowded and enclosed spaces where you come into contact with people you don’t normally meet. For example, on public transport. You should use your judgement in deciding where you should wear one. Businesses, including transport operators, can also ask their employees and customers to wear face coverings. You should check with operators of services, venues, and settings that you use.”

Also, in other government advice, ventilation in indoor spaces is critical to the onward spread of COVID: “When someone with COVID-19 breathes, speaks, coughs or sneezes, they release particles (droplets and aerosols) containing the virus that causes COVID-19. While larger droplets fall quickly to the ground, aerosols containing the virus can remain suspended in the air. If someone breathes in virus particles that are suspended in the air, they can become infected with COVID-19. This is known as airborne transmission. In poorly ventilated rooms the amount of virus in the air can build up, increasing the risk of spreading COVID-19, especially if there are lots of infected people in the room. The virus can also remain in the air after an infected person has left.”

I am now writing to every theatre operator in the West End to ask:

1) Can I please see the COVID risk assessment you will have compiled for each of your venues. 

2) What are the ventilation processes of the air in each of your venues?  I look forward to hearing from you.

I’ve had partial responses from the first two operators named above, but not the rest yet; and I am asking the two that have already responded for more detailed information.

I’m not sure that acting without full transparency on such an important matter reflects at all well on the sector. Some may think they have something to hide.

I will update this on Monday when I next publish this newsletter.