Can the theater survive the Covid? – Prospect Magazine
In the spring of 2020 Julian Bird, CEO of UK Theater and the Society of London Theatres, hosted a Zoom call to share producers’ predictions of what audiences would expect from theater post-pandemic. The UK was weeks away from its first lockdown and there was hope for the Christmas season.
According to call participants, Bird was cautious and conservative. When theaters reopened, audiences were still likely to view them as a health risk: only the most committed would rush. West End theater goers are an older demographic – no one could predict whether the sweet cough generation would be extra cautious or happily make the most of their priority in the vaccine queue. Whoever came back, Bird said, would like a good lap: musicals and broad comedies.
Some young producers are indignant, believing that this is the time when the theater must reach out to the dispossessed. But Bird’s analysis was shared by many. Nimax Theaters owner Nica Burns told me in May 2020 that she would be programming “pure fun”, expecting audiences to be “desperate to have a good time”. Producer Sonia Friedman agreed, directing The returna comedy about a concert where everything goes wrong.
Everything went wrong for The return– as it did for the West End Christmas programme. England’s second lockdown was finally lifted on December 2, 2020. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden urged producers to invest in a Christmas season as part of ‘Operation Sleeping Beauty’; but less than a fortnight later the government again closed theaters in England. The return began performances on December 8 and closed a week later without an official opening. The lucrative panto season has been halted. Millions of pounds have evaporated.
A year later and here we are again. Theater officially reopened across the UK in late summer 2021. Lavish retro musicals were the order of the day. In London, the Barbican put Cole Porter’s everything is fineand the Sadler wells Sing in the rainconditionally Come dance strictly star in the form of Kevin Clifton. (everything is fine won the critics’ battle, but a delightful evening could be had for both.) In early December, hit productions were set to kick off, betting it all on the Christmas market (again). Thanks to Omicron, this bet failed.
The National Theater has invested in hexagona new musical based on Sleeping Beautywhile the Almeida bought the rights to spring awakening, the musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play, which starred on Broadway by Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff. But the best ticket was Rebecca Frecknall’s Cabaret, which charged you £325 to sip champagne and dine at a table, while watching Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley sing about abortions and the rise of Nazism. (“Leave your troubles out,” the advance ad promised.)
Cabaret, however, turned out to be quite good. It wasn’t Redmayne’s emcee (charismatic, yet grotesquely eroticized) that won me over, or Buckley’s Sally Bowles (pictured above), but the heartbreaking turns of Liza Sadovy and Elliot Levey as a couple of widowers hoping for love for the second time. Levey is an actor who guarantees something special. As Herr Schultz, the Jewish grocer whose Aryan bride renounces the risk of a mixed-race marriage, he distills every beat of this production’s sensory overload into moments of crystalline cohesion.
What Cabaret failed was to make me feel safe with Covid. Although this requires proof of a negative LFT upon entry, actors and spectators mingled in the sweaty underground hallways of the Playhouse Theatre. My blood pressure skyrocketed as a flirtatious performer approached the table next to me, sipped an audience member’s drink, and handed it back. Again Cabaret To have good luck. Its press evenings started as planned the second week of December. Like most shows in the West End, it suffered a few canceled performances due to cast members self-isolating, but not many. On the other hand, hexagon and red Mill both have postponed their press openings twice thanks to Covid. (hexagon has now been postponed to the end of the year.) In the week before Christmas, Six, hamilton, The Book of Mormon, Cinderella, The Lion King, Mama Mia!, The game gone wrong and the novel by James Graham The best of enemies all performances cancelled.
Christmas 2020 closings were bad, but at least there was clarity. At Christmas 2021, the theater struggled with no closure directive (and proper insurance), but in practice it was largely unable to operate. Meanwhile, theaters have imposed different health and safety regimes on their actors, which has caused considerable unease. Each winter will offer the risk of new waves. How long can UK theater last without a reliable Christmas season? Next year, all bets are off.