Is it safe to go to the theatre in London?
We're now on Stage 4 of the Government's roadmap for the return of the performing arts, meaning theatres can host both outdoor and indoor shows with a limited-capacity audience and strict safety measures. While that affects the financial viability of mounting productions for many venues, there are some now welcoming back audiences - and finding a great balance of reassuring caution when it comes to Covid-19, and creating a great atmosphere for entertainment.
Among those reopening are Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, Pippin at the Garden Theatre, The Last Five Years at Southwark Playhouse, and Sleepless: A Musical Romance at Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre, the latter of which I attended this week. This stage musical version of the popular Sleepless in Seattle movie was originally meant to premiere in March. Now, it's one of the first big productions post-lockdown, with full staging, cast and orchestra, and a reduced audience (400 down from 1,300).
Fortunately for Sleepless, its venue - the flexible, cavernous Troubadour Wembley Park, which used to be a TV studio - suits socially distancing perfectly, and its surrounding facilities make this an easy and safe visit.
Should I travel to London to see a show?
Public transport in London is still relatively quiet, so it's simple enough to social distance while on the Tube or bus. Masks are compulsory, and hand sanitiser is readily available - although it's advisable to bring some yourself too.
The Troubadour is just a few minutes' walk from Wembley Park Tube station, which is on the Jubilee and Metropolitan lines - a quick journey from the city centre. This new theatre is part of a growing cultural hub, with new homes, shops, and offices. As a modern development, it's spacious and sleek, so a good option if you're at all nervous about potential crowds. There's also parking available at the Red and Yellow car parks nearby.
If you're travelling from further afield, do check the latest Government advice on entry requirements and protocols here: https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice. And if you're staying over, there are several convenient places in the vicinity, including the Hilton London Wembley Hotel, Novotel London Wembley Hotel, and Wembley International Hotel.
Do I need to wear a mask inside the theatre?
Yes - you'll be asked to don a mask by ushers who meet you just outside the Troubadour, and to keep it on throughout the show, so make sure you bring one with you. If you're eating or drinking, you can move your mask momentarily, but be aware of whether there's anyone near you and take that into consideration.
All the theatre staff had branded Sleepless visors, making a necessary safety measure seem fun and cheery. In fact, those visors proved hugely popular with audience members too: they were provided for anyone who wanted one on opening night, and were eagerly snapped up. Everyone in attendance respected the face covering rule from start to finish.
What safety protocols are being taken at London theatres?
All venues are following Government-mandated safety protocols to reduce the possible risk of Coronavirus infection. The Troubadour emailed all ticket holders before the show to outline their protocols, including:
Temperature checks: When you arrive at the theatre, ushers administer a contactless temperature check. If your temperature is 37.8 or higher, your party won't be able to enter the theatre, but you can rebook for a future performance
Symptoms: If you've developed any Covid symptoms in the past 10 days, such as a new, continuous cough, high temperature, or a loss of taste or smell, or if you've returned from a country on the UK's quarantine list within the last 14 days, you're asked not to attend
Bag check: We're used to bag checks at most West End theatres from pre-lockdown. Now, that's a contactless bag check before entering the venue
E-tickets: Your tickets are emailed to you in advance, and you can either keep them on your phone to show the usher, or print them off. Your tickets are then scanned on entrance
Arriving as a group: If you're attending the show with people from your household or support bubble, you're allowed to sit together. However, you have to enter the theatre as one group
NHS Test and Trace: Staff ask audience members' consent to record their contact details for Test and Trace purposes. That means if you have come into contact with anyone who has coronavirus, the NHS will be able to contact and advise you.
Staggered seating: Seats are well spaced, so you can sit as an individual or with others from your bubble, but distanced from anyone else. You won't have anyone directly in front or behind you, or next to you in your row, and those empty seats are clearly marked with a red cross.
Hand sanitiser: There are stations provided throughout the lobby and toilet areas, so you can regularly use hand sanitiser during your visit
What are the Covid cleaning procedures at theatres?
Like other theatres operating at the moment, the Troubadour is diligent about doing a deep clean of the venue after every show. They also increase ventilation to constantly renew the airflow.
What does social distancing inside the theatre look like for audiences?
The Troubadour has clearly marked one-way paths, so you can move around the venue easily while maintaining a two-metre distance from other people. Ushers are also on hand to direct you and to ensure that pathways are kept clear. My audience was certainly diligent about social distancing, and it helps that the Troubadour has such a spacious set-up (as opposed to more cosy West End houses).
The performers, orchestra, backstage crew, and theatre staff are all tested on a daily basis throughout rehearsals and the show's run, using the accurate new FRANKD test: Fast, Reliable, Accurate, Nucleic-based Kit for Covid-19 Diagnostic Detection. Results are returned within the hour after a swab sample is delivered, so that swift action can be taken to contain any potential infection.
During the show itself, the orchestra is kept separate from the actors on an upper level, playing behind glass - although still sounding magnificent, particularly to audiences starved of live music over the past few months.
As for the performers, they'd rehearsed the show before lockdown and were already in tech, so it's been easy to remount. Daily testing means they can get close, even interact, particularly as dressing rooms have been organised into "bubbles" based on who they're on stage with. That means no masks, and a relatively "normal" staging - also informed by a recent study that found singing is no riskier than talking when it comes to the spread of Covid. The Government's guidelines have been updated accordingly, changing a three-metre rule to one-metre-plus. However, singers are still encouraged to use amplification like microphones rather than belting.
Of course, it helps that this is a show suffused with longing, as the central lovers are physically separated throughout. But the staging overall seemed natural and engaging; it's very easy to forget the restrictions and just focus on the story.
What does intermission look like with social distancing?
The one-way system, and helpful ushers, ensure everyone can get to the bar while maintaining social distance. You can pre-order drinks and snacks via the Troubadour website to save time, and roped-off areas designate several queues at the bar. It's all very ordered, and again benefits from the venue's layout: the bar is unusually large, meaning it can accommodate those multiple queues easily, with room in between. All payments are contactless.
Is the merchandise stand open at the theatre?
Yes - you can purchase Sleepless merchandise, including T-shirts, mugs and tote bags. As with the bar, all payments are contactless.
Are the loos open at the theatre?
Yes, and very well-designed for social distancing, with the sinks in a separate area to the numerous toilet stalls, and different doors for entrance and exit.
Is the restaurant open at the theatre?
The Troubadour's Studio 5ive Restaurant is currently closed. However, nearby Boxpark Wembley is a great alternative. You have the choice of multiple cuisines, all made fresh by specialist street food vendors - from burgers, pizza and jerk chicken to dumplings and sushi - and you sit at tables in the centre of a large hall, with music playing and a great atmosphere. It's located just minutes from the Troubadour.
What is the overall experience of the show at a socially distanced theatre?
This musical version of Nora Ephron's beloved romcom, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, loses a little in translation. It's particularly hard to land the comedy in a big, sparsely populated venue, and the jazzy score, while pleasant, lacks big breakout numbers. However, pop star leads Jay McGuiness and Kimberley Walsh are a likeable pair, and there are great turns from Harriet Thorpe, Tania Mathurin, Jobe Hart, Cory English, and a hard-working ensemble.
What was really evident was how excited and grateful the audience felt to be back in a theatre, seeing a fully mounted live show, and to have that connection with performers again. There's still a way to go until theatre is back to pre-lockdown strength, but this is a hopeful step - and a good example that shows can absolutely work, safely and enjoyably, in our "new normal."
Photo credit: Kimberly Walsh and Jay McGuiness in Sleepless: A Musical Romance (Photo by Alastair Muir)
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