April 30: Is Boris Johnson’s “one-way route to freedom” going to need a U-turn?

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With its ever-accelerating roll-out of announcements of shows that are poised to resume, theatreland (not just in London but around the UK) is preparing for a big comeback: just this week, dates have been confirmed for the West End returns of The Phantom of the Opera (from July 27), Mary Poppins (August 7), Hamilton (August 19) and Wicked (September 15).

They follow earlier announcements for the returns of Prince of Egypt (from July 2), Pretty Woman (July 8, but at a new venue, the Savoy), Come from Away (July 22), Tom Stoppard’s Leopodstadt (August 7), Mamma Mia! (August 25), The Woman in Black (September 7), Wicked (September 15), & Juliet (September 24) and Only Fools and Horsers (October 1).

These big ones have all scheduled those returns for after June 21 — a date that, as the Daily Telegraph noted on Tuesday, “is burned into public consciousness as the day when life will finally return to normal and Britain will reach its destination on Boris Johnson’s ‘one-way route to freedom.”

But even as the Prime Minister seems himself to be on a one-way route to parliamentary censure for possible illegalities around the funding of the refurbishments to his Downing Street apartment, the Telegraph went on to note,

“there are growing signs that Covid-19 restrictions will remain in place long after the summer solstice… The Prime Minister insists ‘the end really is in sight’, but it increasingly seems that may only apply to those who own a telescope.”

It goes on to suggest that while restrictions on meeting friends and family will be eased, “it appears increasingly likely that some form of social distancing will stay in place.” It reports:

“Ministers are conducting a review of the one metre-plus rule, which allows restaurant customers, office workers and others to sit one metre apart if mitigations such as screens and extra ventilations are in place./ Pubs have warned that if the one metre-plus rule staying in place, it will be a disaster for them, because they need to be full to make a profit. But hospitality bosses are pessimistic about the possibility of seeing punters crammed shoulder to shoulder at the bar any time soon.”

And theatres are in exactly the same boat: they’ve opened their box offices on the basis that full audiences will be permitted back, not socially distanced ones. As theatre companies and producers have repeatedly made clear, not being able to operate at full capacities is not a sustainable business model.

Yet here we are, with everyone basing their planning on the timetable issued by Johnson back in March as a roadmap out of lockdown. It is true that the the commitment wasn’t a cast-iron guarantee, and that we were always told that those dates would only be confirmed a week before the time they are due to come into force; but with theatre, a week is no time at all to gear up to open, so shows have used those timetables to plan when to put tickets back on sale, resume rehearsals and so on.

But now, as with the previous promise after last autumn’s lockdown that we’d be ready to re-open in December (with Oliver Dowden launching Operation Sleeping Beauty last October, in which the National Lottery was brought in to help buy seats the were forced to remain empty at Christmas pantos in order to maintain social distancing), it came — like so many of Boris Johnson’s assurances — as an empty one.

In October, when the scheme was announced, Qdos managing director Michael Harrison — who was also directing the company’s Christmas entry Pantoland at the London Palladium — said the scheme was “a sticking plaster on a very big theatrical wound”.

But in fact, that sticking plaster ended up being pulled violently off the skin of theatre’s recovery, leaving it in even more pain. Shows that went into rehearsal during that lockdown hoping to open in early December found that they mostly rehearsed for nothing: the London Palladium’s panto, for instance, gave just six public performances (plus an invited dress rehearsal that was attended by Prince William and his family) before promptly closing down again. I attended the opening night of A Christmas Carol at the Dominion — which, bizarrely, also turned out to be its last night, too.

The all-star, sell-out concert version of Les Miserables only gave a handful of performances before it, too, was shut down. The cancelled run will now finally take place from May 20 to September 5 (but is no longer quite the all-star version that was promised; instead, the cast are drawn from the West End and national touring companies), before the full production is reinstated from September 25.

But could theatre now find themselves, again, in the position they were last December? Investing all the time and money in preparing to relaunch, only to find that the proposed terms of that relaunch are simply not possible.

Yes, circumstances can change; last December, it was the arrival of dangerous Covid variants that sent the country back into lockdown. But since then, of course, there’s been the vaccine roll-out, which has already reached everyone over 50, or at least those who want it.

It’s too early to tell, though, just how effective it is at containing the spread of the virus, and whether or not it will protect against the new variants as they emerge. I’m delighted to say that I had my second vaccine a week ago on Wednesday (and my husband had his last second Saturday); but do I want to sit cheek-by-jowl alongside others who either haven’t had them yet or indeed categorically refuse to have them?

The government seems to be leaning towards creating a vaccine passport to get around this problem, with only those who’ve had them being allowed to participate in public events or travel; the Conservative party’s libertarian wing is surely going to push back against that, though, and it will only work if it is truly enforced.

I’m looking forward to theatre returning from May 17, and have already both bought tickets for many events after that as well as RSVP’d my first press invites, too, including (most joyfully) at the Globe, where at least initially social distancing will be enforced (and there will even be a unique opportunity to sit in the Yard, previously only available as standing room).

But if — or when — social distancing is entirely dissolved, perhaps from the aforementioned June 21, I’m not so sure I will be quite so eager to be back. It’s just as well I have a month to get a socially distanced theatre fix in first. On a personal note, it may be just as well that I’m also moving out of London to a new location in the countryside in West Sussex next month, so I won’t be able to see quite as much theatre as before anyway.

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