March 1: Diary items: Harry Potter’s re-opening Down Under, and the Hospital Club’s closing in London

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I spent most of last week writing about the roadmap towards re-opening the UK, possibly as early as June, with social distancing rules no longer in place, even as we are far from completing the vaccination programme — and as yet, have no full data on its efficacy, only projections, that may or may not support the hopes and expectations that people have for a return to ‘normal’ life as it was before.

On the one hand, we saw that even a packed theatre might be possible again last week, as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child re-opened in Melbourne, Australia — the first of the international productions to do so — and live-streamed their curtain call to the world.

Watch here:

As Gareth Reeves, who plays Harry Potter, told the audience:

“They told me this might be emotional, I totally underestimated it. Look I know, we know, that a lot of you have been waiting a long time to get here and we just want to say, as a company, thank you from the bottom of our hearts, for sticking with us. Thank you for being here, and making the effort, and bringing a bit of magic into our lives here in Melbourne. Thank you very much. It’s been a difficult year for everyone and yeah, I just want to once again thank you all again for being here. In times like this, there’s nothing more important than each other and community and live theatre is a really special way to get both of those things in one night.”

And Paula Arundell, who plays Hermione, said:

“We are the first production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to be starting up again all around the world. There are productions that are still on hold. We have London, New York, Hamburg, Toronto, and San Francisco, so we are literally the light in the darkness for them and all of the Wizarding World is very excited to share this moment.”

Watching it in London, I was literally in tears: it reminded me of how much I miss this kind of collective experience.

At the curtain call, the actors took an onstage selfie of themselves with the entire audience, each of whom had been given a lighted magic wand (pictured above, via @BazBam).

But I’m also very aware that Australia has really earned this, too, by shutting down early and shutting down hard.

As Alistair Campbell tweeted on Thursday:

So expecting us to be able to follow Australia’s example right now is a pretty tall order. We still have a very active virus here. And wishing it away does not mean it has, in fact, gone away.

On Friday, I retweeted a couple of photographs a friend had posted on Facebook of a deserted Covent Garden:

I’m actually relieved — I’d have been far more upset if the streets were thronging with shoppers, as they were in Regent Street just a few weeks ago — but it also demonstrates the challenge that West End theatre will face if and when it is ready to re-open. With people working from home, and tourists entirely missing, there may just not be the customers to sustain it.

The West End is, in any case, going to look quite different to how we left it last March. Many shops, restaurants and other businesses will have shut forever; one such place is the Hospital Club, about which I tweeted on Thursday:

As I say there, I’ve been involved with the club for a number of years as a panellist on its annual awards for the creative industries, and with fellow judges — who over the years have variously included theatre owner and producer Nica Burns, SOLT and UK Theatre CEO Julian Bird, theatre producer Kate Packenham, Daily Telegraph theatre critic Dominic Cavendish and my former editor on The Stage Alistair Smith — I’ve been proud to have promoted and nurtured emerging and established talent.

As I wrote in my introduction to the theatre and performance category for the 2018 awards programme,

“It was not intentional, but it is certainly striking that the majority (seven out of ten) nominations are for women; and also that the nominees are drawn from a spectrum that includes actors, writers, artistic directors, designers, and the head of a leading UK drama school. Each of them have broken new ground in their fields, like setting up a cross-discipline venue that includes incorporating a city’s main public library and reinventing long-established theatres, or constantly challenged themselves and us in their career choices, or offering bright new hopes for the future. We are thrilled to celebrate them tonight.”

Our nominees that year included Alex Clifton, founding artistic director of Chester’s Storyhouse Theatre, a venue that offered a brand-new and revolutionary template for civic arts organisations, uniquely combining performance spaces, cinemas, galleries and the local public library into its welcoming cultural offering to the ancient walled cathedral city; and actor Lia Williams, who was nominated after starring in Mary Stuart at the Almeida and in the West End.

For the latter, my citation for the programme stated:

“I’m a totally theatre animal”, Lia Williams has said, and though she’s starred on TV in The Crown and was BAFTA nominated for May 33rd, theatre fans have been following her work for over a quarter a century. In the last year she reprised her Almeida roles in the West End in Mary Stuart, alternating with Juliet Stevenson in the title role and as Elizabeth I — with each night’s role decided on the spin of a coin.

In 2019, I wrote citations for nominees actor James McArdle and director Tamara Harvey:

  • Just 30 years old, James McArdle is already on a fast-track to leading man star status in the theatre, though he’s as yet largely unknown to the general public. But that’s unlikely to be the case for long, with three big appearances at the National in the last three years, culminating in his an epic performance in Ibsen’s Peter Gynt.
  • Artistic director at Theatr Clwyd in Wales since 2015, Tamara Harvey has really put the theatre back on the national map, with her productions of Laura Wade’s Home, I’m Darling transferring to the National and West End (winning the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy) and Orpheus Descending to the Menier Chocolate Factory.

But I may just be proudest of my nomination – and its subsequent win — for Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, during the very first year of its existence. As co-founder Joseph Houston tweeted on Thursday,

And the theatre’s social media account offered this:

It’s actually one of the rare occasions where I genuinely felt that an award actually DID make a difference. And it was particularly pleasing to me that a club, based on serving media professionals in London, was honouring a venue far beyond it.