Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily, as we face yet another worrying COVID surge.
I’ve often felt alone in sounding the alarm over the last two years and more over the theatre industry’s response to the Covid crisis, and have been variously accused of being a doom-monger and trying to actively undermine the industry’s attempts at recovery. In fact, I just want the industry to survive, and to do so, I feel it needs to come back as safely as it can.
But resistance to simple measures like mask wearing have entirely undermined that. SOLT and UK Theatre steadfastly refused to legislate for it, even though the Broadway League did precisely that for Broadway theatres (that have only recently been lifted), claiming they were not empowered to unilaterally impose their own conditions in the absence of governmental directive.
So here we are now, with The Independent yesterday reporting, “Covid-19 infections in the UK have jumped by more than half a million, with the rise likely to be driven by the latest Omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5, figures show… A total of 2.3 million people in private households are estimated to have had the virus last week, up 32% from a week earlier, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).”
We are once again seeing theatre performances being disrupted in London and beyond, with multiple cancellations as COVID sweeps through companies of shows like Moulin Rouge, with COVID being the stated reason. Sometimes the reason is not stated: when the new production of THE SEAGULL that opened just last week cancelled Monday’s performance, no reason was given.
Many of the reviews complained of the airlessness of the auditorium — in his review for THE TIMES, Clive Davis wrote, “It didn’t help, to be honest, that the auditorium was unbearably hot and airless on press night” — so it’s hardly a surprise if COVID is to blame. Indeed, another critic posted he had caught it there:
One of the earliest bits of safety advice in indoor settings was to increase air circulation; but many British theatres, which are routinely unbearable as now in hot weather, have done absolutely nothing to do so. Last night I was in another regional theatre, Brighton’s Theatre Royal– like the Harold Pinter, coincidentally owned by the Ambassador Theatre Group — where the air was stifling.
I kept my mask on throughout. My companion did likewise. But only one other person in our row had a mask on. And looking around, there were hardly any others being worn either.
So if, as it now seems likely, COVID is making another major reappearance in our lives, the theatre will again be imperilled; my reserves of sympathy are running dry.
Repeating myself for pleasure
If I sometimes feel I’m like a stuck record in advocating for more safety in theatres, I also more willingly repeat myself when it comes to theatre I’ve enjoyed. The reason I was in Brighton last night was to see the current UK tour of WAITRESS again as it winds down.
My companion last night admitted he’s seen it roughly twenty times — he’s seen every leading actor who has played the lead role of Jenna, including the understudies in London and also Desi Oakley, an American who had performed the role in the US tour, who was flown over to step into the show in London in January 2020.
In what now seems likely to have been a precursor of the COVID crisis to come, the Evening Standard reported on January 13, 2020: “A stroke of bad luck hit the Waitress cast this weekend as all three actresses in the lead role were struck down with illness. Lucie Jones and understudies Olivia Moore and Sarah O’Connor were all too unwell to perform as Jenna on Saturday, resulting in the matinee and evening performances being cancelled at the last minute.”
I’ve seen the show at least half a dozen times myself– from the first American try-out of the show in Cambridge, MA in the summer of 2015 (when it starred Jessie Mueller), to its Broadway opening the following year and then again when its composer Sara Bareilles first stepped into the lead role there. Then I saw it again when it opened in the West End in 2019 (starring Katherine McPhee), and then on the original leg of the current national tour in 2021, when I caught it at Crawley’s The Hawth (with Lauren Jones returning to the lead role that she’d played in the West End).
It now stars Chelsea Halfpenny (second from the left above), and returning to the role of gynecologist Dr Pomattor is David Hunter, who has also played the role in the West End; he was released from the role during its final West End stand when Bareilles came in to take over and brought Gavin Creel with her from Broadway as her co-star, but was due to return after they left it. He never did, as the show was subsequently suspended by the arrival of COVID and then had the remainder of its run cancelled.
So there’s a lovely sense of closure to him playing the role again now, and was the main reason for my return to it last night. I’ve followed his career for a long time, from even before the time he was a contestant on SUPERSTAR!, the casting show that found a star to play Jesus in the arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar; he’s coincidentally created a podcast with fellow finalist Tim Prottey-Jones that can be heard here.
In the next couple of days, I’m also returning — by invitation — to ANYTHING GOES at the Barbican (when I’m looking forward to seeing a mostly new cast, now led by Kerry Ellis as Reno Sweeney, pictured above with co-stars Simon Callow, Denis Lawson and Bonnie Langford, all also new to the show) and THE DRIFTERS’ GIRL at the Garrick (to see Felicia Boswell succeed Beverley Knight in the title role).
I’ve also gone, without an invitation, to the National’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING during early previews this week, before it opens officially next Monday. Not that I’ve seen this production before, of course, but I have seen the play too many times to count; it’s not my place to therefore comment at this early sage, except to say that given I wasn’t there as a guest of the management and in an official capacity, I exercised my right to vote with my feet at the interval.
This wasn’t ENTIRELY to do with the production, which may not have been fully cooked at Monday’s preview, but also to do with the fact that it started ten minutes late, thus jeopardising me from catching my last train back to West Sussex. Ten minutes may not mean much to the show or most of its audience; but when it means the difference between catching that last train or not, it is doubly annoying. I chose to attend on the basis that the stated running time of 2hrs 30mins would mean I would be able to catch that train. But when I realised it was unlikely, I decided to cut out the stress of even trying. Instead, I got an earlier train — and was happily at home even earlier.
SEE YOU ON FRIDAY
I’ll be back here on Friday. If you can’t wait that long, I may also be found on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/ (though not as regularly on weekends