July 7: A lifeline to full houses (and so-called “freedom”)?

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

Or will it in fact be the death knell to theatre?

Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of the country’s lockdown first imposed last December looks like it is officially reaching Stage Four on July 19 — delayed from the originally hoped-for June 21 —  with his announcement on Monday that it was basically “now or never”, as a Daily Mail online headline put it.

Julian Bird, CEO of SOLT and UK Theatres, immediately hailed it;

This is a lifeline for our industry, essential for the survival of theatres across the country.”

But what if it’s in fact the death knell, as cast and crew test positive and shows have to keep cancelling? Not least because not all cast members, especially among the younger members, are likely to have been fully vaccinated yet.

And what about audiences? Where are the audiences actually going to come from, given that many of them will be self-isolating, too? Let alone tourists, who will be (understandably) reluctant to visit what will soon be the COVID capital of Europe?

A further 28,773 confirmed Covid cases in the UK were announced yesterday. This is heading in one direction only. These figures are only going to accelerate as people start mingling and abandoning masks.

Even the new Health Minister Sajid Javid, admitting that the wholesale scrapping of lockdown rules from July 19 means we are entering “uncharted territory”, said that new infections could easily rise above 100,000 a day over the summer, more than any point in the pandemic, according to a Guardian story last night. As it reported,

“Two million people could contract Covid this summer, potentially meaning up to 10 million must isolate in just six weeks, Guardian analysis shows, prompting warnings over risks to health and disruption to the economy.”

So much for SOLT’s vaunted lifeline.

As the brilliant Marina Hyde reflected in a Guardian column yesterday,

“Sixteen months ago we probably would have rolled our eyes at being told to take “personal responsibility” by Boris Johnson, a man who doesn’t even take personal responsibility for an unspecified number of his own kids. But that was then, and these days we just have to let it wash over us like a waterfall in a shampoo advert.

There was certainly a powerful cascade of it all on Monday, as the prime minister explained that it was now or never for opening up. Faced with that false opposition, who wouldn’t pick “now”? I am hugely into “now” as the moment where it all goes away, and we return to a prelapsarian world where the government that got pretty much all of it wrong, pretty much all the way through, simply gets out of our lives. The only nagging worry, I suppose, is the possibility that the government that got pretty much all of it wrong is getting this bit of it wrong too, and that that means they’re going to be right up in our business again come the autumn.”

Apart from the thought that if we have to have a newspaper columnist as PM, why did it have to be BJ and not Marina, this is bang on the money. “Freedom day” on July 19 is likely to be very short-lived indeed, as we enter a whole new dystopian future of self-isolation without formal lockdowns, but with the same end result.

Meanwhile, though, the theatre world might be minded to be careful what it wished for.

The imminent changes in the rules resulted in some fast theatrical re-juggling. Having last week invited press in well ahead of the originally announced world premiere of Cinderella on July 14 to review it tonight and tomorrow (July 7 and 8, with reviews embargoed to 11pm on Thursday, thus having them appear BEFORE the stated premiere), critics were hastily advised on Monday that the official opening has now been moved to July 20 — with an additional press night offered the night before, on July 19, which was previously a dark night, so the house will be entirely available for.

Of course, this now means it will be riding roughshod over two previously booked first nights that week: on the Monday (July 19), for Wonderville, a new magic show at the Palace; and on the Tuesday (July 20), for the Ian McKellen Hamlet at the Theatre Royal, Windsor.

It’s not unusual, of course, for multiple press nights to clash; but it seems particularly disrespectful for Lloyd Webber to ‘crash’ McKellen and his collaboration with prolific producer Bill Kenwright’s most high-profile show of the year so far (and who has contributed more to bringing the West End back than any other commercial producer outside of Nica Burns, bringing in Love Letters to the Haymarket last December for a run that was abbreviated when the new lockdown was imposed, then re-opening it at the first opportunity in May; and then last Monday and last night opening Heathers and Be More Chill respectively at the Haymarket and Shaftesbury, both of them transfers from the Other Palace — owned by Lloyd Webber, and co-produced with its former artistic director Paul Taylor-Mills).  

Kenwright also made countless millions for Lloyd Webber with his record-breaking touring version of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (the longest touring production in UK theatre history, including several West End seasons, including one that ran at the New London, now the Gillian Lynne, and home to Cinderella); he also entirely rehabilitated Love Never Dies after its original production was critically mauled, by reorganising and re-staging it in a more coherent way himself, and he has also regularly produced other Lloyd Webber’s in the West End, including a (much improved) return run for Whistle Down the Wind.

As it is, Covid-related cancellations among the shows that have opened are already spreading. In a column in the Daily Telegraph on Monday, Dominic Cavendish pointed out:

“A week is a long, convulsive time in British theatre. Witness yesterday’s dismaying Tweet from the Royal Court. “Due to Covid isolation requirements we are unable to perform seven methods of killing kylie jenner this week, from Monday to Saturday inclusive.” The West End production of Hairspray also notified Twitter users of the cancellation of an imminent Sunday matinee: “Despite extremely robust precautions being in place we have become aware of a suspected positive case of Covid 19 within the production team…” (it has since extended the cancellation period to July 13 inclusive). Last week, Death Drop, at the Garrick, cancelled performances Thursday to Sunday “due to members of the company having to self-isolate in accordance with government guidelines.”

To have to halt one production owing to self-isolation rules may be regarded as a misfortune, to halt three looks like a PR disaster for theatreland. And that’s not even a complete tally of recently affected shows. A few weeks ago Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Palladium pushed its opening date from July 1 to July 12, “due to members of the company having to isolate in line with current guidance”.

Obviously safety has to come first (though not enough, according to this government, to mandate continued mask wearing in public spaces, a proven way of protecting both ourselves AND others); but the bigger risk is to public confidence: with shows being cancelled left, right and centre, who is going to make plans to go?

As it is, the removal of masking requirements — and the total absence of knowing the vaccination status of the person occupying the non-socially distanced seat next to you — is going to knock the confidence of other potential theatregoers. As a friend messaged me, “I can’t be the only person looking at my theatre bookings post July 18 and thinking I’m not going to go if it means being cheek by jowl with a maskless person! Even Wimbledon isn’t selling all their seats and that’s outside!”

I was heartened, however, to be told this ahead of last night’ opening night of Be More Chill at the Shaftesbury Theatre:

“The theatre has a new ventilation system which changes the air every 7 minutes.”

That’s not quite airline standard — which replaces the air every two to three minutes — but its nonetheless reassuring/ I would now love to know the stats on every other theatre in London…..