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A Little Night Music at Opera Holland Park (Photo by Danny Kaan)

What it looks like to attend socially distanced theatre in London

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Last weekend, I attended my first live, in-person theatre show since we went into lockdown in March. It was Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's musical A Little Night Music, a quickly assembled concert production staged at the beautiful Opera Holland Park (OHP) - which had to scrap its planned season and has instead been doing one-off concerts.

So, what was it like to get back to theatre with social distancing in place?

What safety measures are in place at socially distanced theatre?
How ticketing is handled at socially distanced theatre
The audience at socially distanced theatre
The staff's role at socially distanced theatre
What to bring to socially distanced theatre
Track and trace procedures in place
How the theatre's facilities have been updated for social distancing
What was the socially distanced performance like?

What safety measures are in place at socially distanced theatre?

Most people now want plenty of information beforehand, so they know exactly what to expect. OHP handled this brilliantly, sending out an email to ticket holders that laid out all the safety measures in place. These included:

- Providing sanitised, allocated seating, with chairs at least 1.5m apart
- Restricting visitor numbers to maintain social distancing
- Staff, wearing masks, stewarding the event
- All OHP staff and performers taking their temperature beforehand, and not attending if symptomatic of Covid-19
- Performers staying at least 5m away from the audience
- Providing hand sanitiser

A Little Night Music at Opera Holland Park (Photo by Danny Kaan)
Before the show at Opera Holland Park. (Photo by Marianka Swain)

How ticketing is handled at socially distanced theatre

OHP operated an e-ticketing system, which meant they could just see the ticket on your phone on arrival. Chairs were clearly marked, so it was easy to find your seat. Before lockdown, some theatres had started doing e-tickets, and it would be great to see more embrace that system now - not just for Coronavirus reasons, but environmental too.

The audience at socially distanced theatre

While OHP handled most safety and social distancing measures, the audience is called upon to be sensible as well. For example, audience members are asked not to attend the event if they have symptoms or have been in contact with someone else who's symptomatic. Once at the event, audience members were asked to observe social distancing at all times, avoid touching seats that we weren't using, wear masks as necessary, and keep belongings at hand.

The staff's role at socially distanced theatre

Some of this might sound a bit scary, which isn't what you want on a fun night out. However, OHP staff were incredibly friendly and welcoming, doing their jobs promptly but also taking time to engage with arriving audience members in a cheery way.

Staff were posted at the entrance to check tickets, and then also near the seating to help direct people to their assigned chairs. That meant everyone got in quickly and maintained distance between us all, but with the minimum of fuss. You could still chat to your neighbours - from a safe distance! - before the show and enjoy the lovely surroundings of Holland House. As there was a capped audience of 200, it felt very easy to maintain safe spacing throughout.

A Little Night Music at Opera Holland Park (Photo by Danny Kaan)
A Little Night Music at Opera Holland Park (Photo by Danny Kaan)

What to bring to socially distanced theatre

I travelled to the park on the Tube, so I made sure to have a mask and hand sanitiser with me. It's always sensible to have those on hand, particularly when going to a venue you haven't attended since lockdown started.

The Tube itself was pretty quiet (this was late afternoon on a Saturday), and everyone was wearing masks and respecting each other's distance. The park was a bit livelier, which was wonderful to see after all those gloomy months, but also felt like everyone was safely distanced.

The other major factor here was the weather. At OHP, there were two mini tents set up as part of the staging, so the performers could carry on even if it bucketed down - which it did about halfway through! The audience was out in the open, though, so we got thoroughly drenched, but that rather added to the stoic "the show must go on" spirit of the whole enterprise. I was very glad that I'd brought two macs: one to wear, one to cover my lap and bag underneath. When Janie Dee, playing Desiree in the show, marched out into the downpour to sing "Send in the Clowns" defiantly to the heavens, it was a thrilling theatrical moment, and well worth all the rain!

Still, if you're going to an open-air show, come prepared for all weather eventualities. You may not be able to use an umbrella or parasol if it blocks the view of the people behind you (as was the case here). Here are some suggestions of what to bring.

- Hand sanitiser and mask
- Sun cream and hat
- Extra layers and wet weather gear
- Sensible footwear and bags
- Towel, if your seat is wet
- Water bottle and snacks

A Little Night Music at Opera Holland Park (Photo by Danny Kaan)
A Little Night Music at Opera Holland Park (Photo by Danny Kaan)

Track and trace procedures in place at socially distanced theatre

OHP reminded all attendees to update their contact details for track and trace purposes. It's easy enough to do via their website or by contacting the box office, and reassuring to know that they're taking this aspect seriously. If anyone did feel unwell and couldn't attend, OHP was happy to issue refunds accordingly.

How the theatre's facilities have been updated for social distancing

The social distancing measures did limit the usual wonderful facilities that OHP has on site - so no interval, no bar, no loos. But the park itself had loos nearby, and though it's a shame not to be able to extend the evening by chatting to people over drinks, it was impressive that they zipped through the whole musical in around two hours. And by that point, we were happy to slosh our way home and dry off!

I brought a bottle of water with me, so I had something to drink on hand at least. If you're attending a long show, you could also bring a quiet snack to nibble on, since you may not be able to get any refreshments on site.

A Little Night Music at Opera Holland Park (Photo by Danny Kaan)
A Little Night Music at Opera Holland Park (Photo by Danny Kaan)

What was the socially distanced performance like?

"But how was the show?" you might be wondering. Well, the preparations were a bit more arduous than usual, and we did have some hairy moments contending with the rain and with some curious pigeons. But that's the kind of spontaneity that makes live, outdoor theatre such a pleasure. If anything, it led to a closer bond between audience and performers as we supported one another through it all.

Beyond that, the production itself was superb - extremely well cast (and in need of a longer run with this company, if/when that's possible), with some simple staging to make the narrative clear and keep the performers spaced out. The latter actually worked rather well with this piece all about how people are out of step with one another, caught up in their own dramas.

The actors carried scripts, but didn't rely on them too heavily, and wore mics so the sound was clear. The band of eight, playing revised orchestrations to suit the smaller number, were housed in one of the side cloisters, and gamely played on as the water pooled around them. Together, they made an excellent account of Sondheim's lovely score.

The musical also had some striking parallels for our current situation - from its reflections on what's important in life, and how to connect with one another, to an actual reference to someone quarantining during a plague! It's also, in a funny way, a show that celebrates theatre itself, so felt very well-suited to this joyful event welcoming audiences back.

Originally published on

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