Will West End Theatres Reopen In May?

Although we are still in the grip of the pandemic, the West End is starting to plan ahead for when audiences will be welcomed back through their doors. The producers of Les Misérables announced back in December that they are planning to bring the show back to the stage in May. Earlier this month, London’s County Hall said that they were hoping to bring their adaptation of Witness for the Prosecution back to the stage in the same month. The most eye-catching thing about both of these comebacks is that they have been planned on the proviso that audiences will be welcomed back through their doors – without the need for social distancing. But is this a realistic ambition?

Next to no other venues have made such ambitious plans, or at the very least haven’t announced them. It seems foolhardy to do so – around the same time that County Hall made their announcement, the UK was seeing record numbers of both cases and deaths from COVID-19. Theatres, along with all other places deemed unessential, have been closed for almost two months after a brief period where some were able to reopen over the Autumn. Under the previous tier system in England, theatres were able to stay open for indoor performances as long as their local area was in tier one or two. But there is no guarantee that this system will look the same once the current lockdown is ended, and restrictions will still be tight. To put a date on when live performances will be able to resume is a bold, if not foolishly optimistic, action to take.

Some of the UK’s biggest cultural events have already had to rethink their plans. Glastonbury, which normally takes place towards the end of June, has been cancelled for the second year in a row. A massive multi-day music festival attracting over 170,000 people is not exactly comparable to a theatre, but nonetheless is a painful reminder that even plans made months in advance are prone to unravel. It’s simply a feature of the times we find ourselves in. Any forward thinking depends on a heavy dose of hopefulness, something which has felt all too rare this past year.

Theatres have consistently shown that they can put on performances safely – that is not the issue. The issue is whether or not, come May, they will be allowed to reopen. West End theatres, along with all other performance spaces across the UK, will surely be along the last places allowed to reopen at anything like full capacity. Perhaps this is in part because the UK government is quite happy to treat the arts with disdain, but more reasonably it is because they are large indoor spaces where close contact is inevitable. In that regard at least, theatres are the same as gyms, hairdressers and book stores (among others), all of which are also closed for now.

Les Misérables have already had to cancel a host of planned performances in February. But there is some chance that in three months things could be different for the West End. The R number in the UK, while still high, is now estimated to be between 0.8 and 1. It is a potential sign that the pandemic may be slowing down, a combination of lockdown and the increasing impact of the vaccination programme. With regards to vaccines, the UK government is getting closer and closer to its two million doses per week target. It may still take some time for the effects to become more evident, but even so we are already in a very different place to where we were a few weeks ago. A place where theatre managers, performers and audiences can look ahead to when performances might resume.

Sadly, it doesn’t look like it will be anytime soon, and on nothing like the scale some West End producers are hoping for. To think shows could return without social distancing seems incredibly unlikely. The Prime Minister said that he hoped we will not have need for social distancing (at least not permanently) come October 2021. It seems highly unlikely that theatres, or any spaces where people will come into close contact for extended periods of time, will have any grounds for exemption. Other measures such as face coverings and hand sanitising are also likely to be around for some time as well.

That being said, there is an obvious secondary use for theatres that could see them do their bit in the COVID-19 fight. Most venues would seem like obvious candidates for vaccination centres. Theatres have large central indoor spaces, hallways designed for crowd control, and bars with fridges where vaccines could be kept. Alternatively, more testing centres would also be welcome. There is some precedence for this – the Usher Hall in Edinburgh was converted into a testing centre in September last year. The layout of larger performance spaces lends itself well to such alternative uses. More local venues, meanwhile, would be viable Just because onstage productions cannot go ahead does not mean that our use for theatres has gone away. 

Surely the best case scenario that the West End and theatres can hope for is a situation similar to what some areas of the UK had last Autumn, where limited performance runs with socially distanced audiences are allowed. Outdoor performances in the warmer months of Spring and Summer are also a realistic possibility. If this is all indeed the case, there will surely be a need to extend the Cultural Recovery Fund or add to it so that venues can survive the slow, painful journey out of this pandemic’s second wave. However the next few months play out, it is unlikely that any shows will be able to resume business as normal in the way some are already hoping for.

Words by James Hanton.


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