Your guide to socially distanced theatre in London
It’s a hopeful time in theatre, as indoor venues begin to reopen, outdoor venues welcome back audiences, and a variety of creative solutions bridge the gap between viewers and performers – from the digital streaming of shows to new pop-up venues, installation pieces, and specially designed immersive theatre.
The good news for anyone who has questions or concerns about going back to the theatre is that there is plenty of information available on venue websites and social media, and also emailed to ticket buyers before your performance. You can prepare ahead of time, ensuring you have a mask to wear on public transport and during the show itself, carrying extra hand sanitiser with you, and only booking seats together with those who are in your household or support bubble.
Theatres are adhering to strict Government guidelines, which means that venue capacities are reduced to ensure social distancing, and some have introduced extra elements like Perspex screens to separate different groups. E-tickets are key, as you can just show the usher your phone rather than handing them a piece of paper, plus it’s part of the venue’s track and trace strategy. Theatres are deep-cleaned between shows, and hand sanitiser stations are widely available.
Most importantly, all efforts are made to ensure safe social distancing both in the auditorium and backstage. Many venues have adopted one-way systems, clearly signposted, in order to reduce any potential build-ups of crowds, and all performers and backstage crew endeavour to remain at least 2m apart. These measures are part of making everything organised and slickly maintained, so that you’re not just kept safe throughout your experience, but you actively feel safe, and you can relax and enjoy the show.
Theatres have been very careful about adopting all guidelines laid out by the Government in order to reopen without risk to either performers or audience members. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s test concert with Beverley Knight at the London Palladium in July was part of a vital group of pilot programmes, demonstrating how particular safety measures could make an enormous difference, while still allowing productions to go ahead.
We’ve since seen venues implementing many of those measures, as well as reducing capacity to safe and manageable numbers. There have also been some creative solutions to this challenge of how to cater to theatre audiences in the current circumstances, such as Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre broadcasting Jesus Christ Superstar to extra viewers on a big screen on its lawn, or the Donmar Warehouse introducing a sound installation piece, Blindness, that doesn’t require performers in the room – yet is still an exciting live experience. Venues have also found ways to offer food and drink with minimal contact, such as using cashless payments and apps to order.
And if audiences are keen to catch great entertainment from home, there’s loads on offer there too, including the revival of cherished musical Romantics Anonymous by the Bristol Old Vic, and the all-star, 50th-anniversary concert production of Godspell.
The Government allowed theatres to open for outdoor performances in mid July, and there has been a buzz of activity since – albeit occasionally hampered by the variable British summer weather! We’ve had memorable shows like Sondheim musical A Little Night Music at Opera Holland Park, which sold out in six minutes. Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent’s Park also had its tickets snapped up immediately, although the added screening on the lawn opened up new seating, and outdoor theatres around the UK have been quick to bring back exciting programming.
Enticing offerings include: the 40th-anniversary production of Willy Russell’s Educating Rita at the Minack Theatre in Cornwall – giving a home to the national tour that was stymied by Covid-19; Fanny & Stella at the new Garden Theatre at Vauxhall’s Eagle Pub; the Turbine Theatre adopting a nearby jetty in Battersea on which to stage everything from Hair to Shakespeare, family shows and musical improv; Welsh venue Theatr Clwyd presenting work on an adjacent hill, including comedy, musical theatre, spoken word and soul music; an open-air theatre festival at the Maltings Theatre in St Albans, with Shakespeare, musical mystery, and Gilbert and Sullivan; and Brighton Open Air Theatre’s wonderful mix of plays, musicals, and “stand-up under the stars.”
Like indoor theatre, these outdoor shows are subject to Government rules about social distancing, e-tickets, deep cleaning, and clear signs to help space out entering and exiting audiences. These safety measures help create the conditions for a magical night of open-air performance – just remember to bring both sun cream and a raincoat, so you’re prepared for all eventualities.
While large indoor venues, such as West End theatres, aren’t yet in a position to return at full force, the innovative immersive productions – which already push boundaries in terms of where and how they’re staged, and the use of pioneering technology – are in a great position to adapt shows in line with Covid regulations and present engaging, unusual theatrical adventures.
London has some fantastic immersive shows on offer, including a new work from French theatremakers, C-o-n-t-a-c-t, which will be performed in three different locations in the city. It combines live performers, socially distanced, with a 3D sound design accessed via an app and heard on your headphones. There’s also COLAB Theatre’s 1920s gangland piece Crooks 1926, revised for our social distancing era, but still a gripping, immersive world of infamous criminals and the fight for domination. Or perhaps you like your Roaring Twenties with fewer heists and more Champagne, in which case the fabulous Jay Gatsby-hosted party, Guild of Misrule’s immersive The Great Gatsby, is more your speed. It’s been reconfigured as a masquerade ball: masks can be stylish, as well as safe.
You can also join the ranks of the great detectives by entering the drama-meets-escape room challenge that is Sherlock: The Official Live Game, featuring audio and video assistance from Sherlock cast members like Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, and Martin Freeman. And there are two tantalising prospects on the horizon: a 1984 that doesn’t just adjust for Covid safety measures, but actively incorporates them in its Orwellian world; and prepare for adventures through time and space with Doctor Who: Time Fracture, where you enter London in the Blitz and wind up confronting classic Who creations like Daleks and Cybermen.
There are plenty of opportunities for you to catch your stage and screen favourites in the coming weeks, thanks to new productions in theatres and online. Alan Bennett’s ultra-starry Talking Heads revival moves from the BBC to the Bridge Theatre, and an incredible cast reprise their roles – including Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Tamsin Greig, and Kristin Scott Thomas. This is a rare gathering of luminaries, giving intimate performances of these revealing monologues, so make sure you grab a ticket.
Andrew Scott, now fully recovered from the illness that saw new play Three Kings postponed, anchors another starry Old Vic: In Camera venture (following on from The Crown’s Claire Foy and Matt Smith in Lungs). Meanwhile, Normal People’s Daisy Edgar-Jones is part of the acclaimed production of Mike Bartlett’s Albion; Hamilton’s Giles Terera in one-man play Death of England: Delroy kickstarts the National Theatre’s live shows; pop stars-turned-West End musical leads Jay McGuiness and Kimberley Walsh headline Sleepless: A Musical Romance; and Ralph Fiennes stars in David Hare’s Beat the Devil – a coronavirus response play, hot off the press.
Photo credit: An illustration of the Southwark Playhouse's social distancing plan.