May 26: The show(s) must go on

Mark ShentonInclude in homepage slide?, Thought of the day1 Comment

(Or must they, or can they?)

The show must go on is one of the oldest theatrical sayings in the book. And theatres, after more than 14 months of closure (apart from two short-lived comebacks last September and again in December), have been trying to do just that in the West End and at theatres around the country: getting their shows back on.

Heck, its even been adopted as the slogan of a fundraising initiative, including a series of live shows to celebrate the West End, that was originally scheduled for last December and is now due to take at the Palace Theatre from next Wednesday (June 2-6, with the final night set to be live streamed and available on demand for the next week, featuring performances from 18 separate returning or new shows).

After The Mousetrap was the first show to usher the theatre back in a week ago last Monday, the New York Times ran a feature that was headlined thus:

As Alex Marshall, European culture reporter for the New York Times reported,

Monday’s comeback felt like it was actually permanent, 15 audience members said in interviews, many highlighting Britain’s speedy vaccination campaign as the reason for their optimism. (Over 55 percent of the British population has received at least one dose, a higher proportion than in the United States.) A small but worrying surge in coronavirus cases in Britain, linked to a variant first identified in India, did not dampen their mood.

“I really think we’re back for good this time,” said Matthew Lumby, 48, a civil servant. “I wouldn’t be certain we’ll be without face masks for a while, but if wearing one’s the price of being back in a theater again, it’s a small one to pay.”

The mood was similar at the nearby Royal Opera House, which also reopened on Monday, with Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. “I feel confident this time it’s for good,” said Katie Connor, 40, as several huge Rolls Royces pulled up with glamorous operagoers.

But last night, just nine days into theatre’s limited return — with social distancing requirements still in place at every theatre — came this tweet from Walden, one of the new shows that began previews just last Saturday, that’s part of the Re:Emerge season of three new plays being presented by Sonia Friedman Productions at the Harold Pinter Theatre:

It had therefore managed just two performances before being shut down. This may hopefully prove to be only temporary — press performances are due to begin on Thursday, running to Saturday — but if not, I’m already starting to feel a deja vu for its producer Sonia Friedman, who last December had just begun previews for another new show, The Comeback, when we faced the dread, last experienced last September, of the third impending lockdown.

Press night had been scheduled for Wednesday December 16, but sensing trouble ahead, Friedman’s press agents hastily e-mailed critics the previous Friday inviting us to come in on that weekend. As we now know, that third lockdown arrived at midnight Tuesday December 15, so that press night never happened, nor did the bulk of the run. (Friedman is now scheduled to bring the production back for a return run from July 7-25).

Johnson, of course, has promised “an irreversible” comeback from lockdown when he announced the four stages out of lockdown back in February, though as The Guardian reported at the time, he “conceded he cannot offer a ‘cast iron guarantee’ that England’s third national lockdown will be its last.”

Instead, as I tweeted yesterday at lunchtime,

This advice has now been hastily amended, with the BBC reporting this morning:

Advice for eight areas in England worst-hit by the Indian coronavirus variant has been updated after the government clarified that it was not imposing local restrictions.

The amended advice asks people to minimise travel into and out of Bolton, Blackburn, Kirklees, Bedford, Burnley, Leicester, Hounslow and North Tyneside.

Earlier advice had asked people to avoid non-essential travel altogether.”

Two of those cities happen to have major producing theatres: the Octagon in Bolton and Curve in Leicester. It all depends on whether or not you consider seeing The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber (running June 7-19 at Curve) essential or not, I guess. (Never mind a broader question I’ve posed before whether Curve should have received £5,742,087 worth of public funding as an NPO between 2015 and 2018 when this is the sort of programming it delivers. Perhaps it is time to simply hand the keys over to ATG, and let them programme the theatre without any subsidy at all).

For some of us, theatre is our lifeblood — yes, even the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber (I’m not being a snob when I query the need for public money to put on a cabaret celebration of his phenomenal output, by the way: I just think its popular enough to stand on its own two feet, as the 35 year run of The Phantom of the Opera in the West End is testament to).

But who, never mind the subsidised theatres who at least have that cushion to meet their executive salaries and running costs, even if many have had to lay off regular staff and freelancers, can carry on operating in an environment of continuing uncertainty, of where and how COVID will strike next? A few shows, I see, have taken the precaution of double casting themselves, so should someone fall ill on one company and force it to self-isolate, the other company can pick up instead. This has been put in place, for example, at London’s The Mousetrap and for the premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s 88th play The Girl Next Door (kicking off a week on Friday, June 4-July 3, pictured above). But what happens if someone from each company has the misfortune to become a COVID risk?

We’ve just seen how this might play out with Walden at the Pinter. The show can’t go on, after all. Can producers — or audiences — deal with this level of uncertainty? Last night’s performance was cancelled just ten minutes before curtain up. So audiences, many of whom were back at the theatre for the first time since the lockdown, were sent home.

I fear that audience confidence will be shaken. Who wants to book a ticket and head into town with no guarantee that the show will actually happen? The disappointment is just too much to bear.