The Year Without Theatre

Christopher Fowler
The first play I saw was George Bernard Shaw's 'The Devil's Disciple'. I must have been seven or eight. The last play I saw was Friedrich Dürrenmatt's 'The Visit', days before Lockdown. Between the two plays has been sandwiched a lifetime's theatre, plays seen more frequently than any football fan's match fixtures. It was a London thing. With more grand theatres concentrated in one place than anywhere else in the world, it was our city's great treasure. And it was being returned to a state of
egalitarianism, despite what some may think. As the expensive tickets became more so, the cheap tickets got cheaper and the effect of regular theatregoing really felt as if it was trickling down. Raucous hen-night shows and lunatic reimaginings of old classics were transforming the landscape. Next up at the Young Vic was to be 'Orfeus: A House Opera', in a theatre where every show is a sell-out, reaching the widest audiences imaginable.
Now it's all gone. You cannot get away with the half-measures that shops have installed - a token plastic sheet here, a hand sanitiser there, a few arrows on the floor. London theatres are filled with pinch-points - by their toilets and bars, on their staircases and landings, in the seat rows themselves. They were built for smaller, shorter, less overweight audiences. The conviviality of the shared experience goes up against COVID in the worst possible way. Fringe theatre actually revels in blurring the lines between audience and cast. I can't count the number of times I've been spat on, dragged from my seat, shouted at or sweated over. In one week I actually got stage blood thrown over me at three separate plays. I was asked to hold the Australian chanteuse Miaow-Miaow's silicon breast augmenters for the length of her show, ridiculed by Pantones dames and usually get singled out by magicians. But London theatre has long had a growing problem; the mass Disneyfication of shows - too many terrible franchised musicals and robotic brand spin-offs, not enough serious plays. One production can run in 60 cities simultaneously (another good reason for dumping the bloody Mousetrap - it's still all over Europe). 'The Woman in Black' has been on for decades simply it's so cheap to stage that it shot straight into profit.
Perhaps the pandemic will rid us of these tiresome shows, but more likely they'll be the only ones strong enough to survive.
Even so, theatre gets a bad rep. It's elitist and they're just luvvies playing at having jobs, runs the thinking. No-one realises they're supporting families, performing to schools and pumping vast amounts of money into the capital. COVID must be gone entirely for London's beautiful theatres to reopen. In London's four century theatre history this will have been a blip. When it re-emerges it will largely have to be as it was before, because it can survive no other way.


muninnhuginn (not verified) Sat, 22/08/2020 - 09:07

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

'The Woman in Black' is a GCSE text (as is 'An Inspector Calls') so is guaranteed an audience--willing or otherwise. It seems to arrive at my local theatre with exactly the regularity to catch each cohort. The Shakespeare that tours most often is also generally on the list.

I try not to be too cynical. At least there is (was?) some theatre that schools could take their pupils to even if it was from a very short list of possibilities. But it would be nice if kids were taken for the sake of seeing a great production rather than because it's something they're examined on.

Jan (not verified) Sat, 22/08/2020 - 09:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

If the weather holds there maybe a late summer chance for a bit of outdoor theatre @ Regents Park or Cannizaro Park. Saying that I think that down this way on that the Minacks in a bit of bother.

Audience size and the loss of atmosphere down to the lack of audience is the kicker.

Not only is there unlikely to be a chance to see the panto at Yeovil Octogon this December which was to be "Cinderella"( one of my favourites) me chance to be a panto performer has also dissolved. Not only will it be difficult to socially distance a village hall audience who tbh always benefited from being a bit spaced out it will be absolutely impossible to house a decent size cast around the back of the stage. This can't be good. Can it?

Cornelia Appleyard (not verified) Sat, 22/08/2020 - 10:38

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

And yet the Crucible in Sheffield was allowed an audience for the snooker....could the prize fund of £2,395,000 have something to do with that?

Ian Luck (not verified) Sat, 22/08/2020 - 11:17

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The bloody Mousetrap. Right. The Detective does it. Let that sink in for a second. Now you don't have to watch the damn thing. Why not tell your friends and save them the misery, too?

Brooke (not verified) Sat, 22/08/2020 - 13:34

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Because our city is a way-stop btw NYC and DC, we are usually spared the disney-like productions. To our benefit however, there are numerous small theatres. Unlike the big production halls, bringing you off-broadway Hamilton ($200 US/seat), these theatres do interesting things, e.g. My General Tubman, in which Harriet Tubman is realized as a smart, complex, adult woman capable of leading during a horrible war. Not big screen fare. Unfortunately, these theatres indeed have many pinch points. And unlike Hamilton, the productions don't have the big screen option. Nor can they follow Burbage to the countryside. No, this is not good!

Peter T (not verified) Sat, 22/08/2020 - 15:57

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

All very inconsistent. If it's acceptable to have spectators at the Crucible, one in every third seat, why not open theatres on a similar basis? And why ban the public from the open air spaces of Silverstone?

I prefer cheaper productions. Theatre should, predominantly, be a small number of people talking to one another, preferably with a plot that's within the capacity of the actors.

Derek J Lewis (not verified) Sat, 22/08/2020 - 19:03

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'd prefer 'the mousetrap' to any of those appalling jukebox musicals that fill the west end. To tell you the truth now i'd also prefer it to any of the pretentious nonsense i used to regularly watch at the Royal Court years ago. Well except for some of the Sam Shepard stuff. With age comes enlightenment haha

Helen Martin (not verified) Sat, 22/08/2020 - 19:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

There was an ad on tv the other night; patronize your local restaurants, you'll support a bunch of actors.

Jan (not verified) Sun, 23/08/2020 - 07:54

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Nice one Helen!
And going by most West End restaurant I knew perfectly TRUE!

John Howard (not verified) Sun, 23/08/2020 - 11:37

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'm with Derek on "The Mousetrap" debate.
As admin says, this is really a blip along the lines of the theatres closing whilst the plague was hovering around in the 16th and 17th centuries

snowy (not verified) Sun, 23/08/2020 - 12:31

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Red gown? Check.
Wig with horns? Check.
Big toasting fork? Check.

Theatre is rubbish, why does anybody want to subject themselves to a 15thC streaming service. You have to get dressed up, pay an entire month's subscription for a ticket and then transport costs on top, all to be crammed like sheep into a dirty cold barn, and shouted at by a group of people from minor public schools for two hours.

[Why has fringe/experimental theatre not switched to Ad-funded streaming platforms already? I'll admit the economics are not easy, because it is all front end, but you can recoup that with lower operating costs, [only one performance to spend on], and the fact that the run, [and revenue], never ends as long as the show is on the platform.]

John Howard (not verified) Mon, 24/08/2020 - 07:13

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Very Tiny snowy? Check.
Big Wooden Spoon? Check.

You little devil you....!

Dawn Andrews (not verified) Mon, 24/08/2020 - 07:33

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

That critique could have lovies quaking in their tights Snowy. I've always found theatre a bit of an ordeal, being mildly aspie I was lucky to make it out without a full blown panic attack followed by a visit to the oft small and overworked loo to throw up. Tends to put a crimp in one's evening and that of one's unfortunate partner.

Peter T (not verified) Mon, 24/08/2020 - 11:43

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Dawn, as a fellow Aspie, I can understand. I don't have too much of a problem with the theatre except for the bar during the interval. It's a mental struggle to enter, never mind queue/fight to buy a drink

Helen Martin (not verified) Mon, 24/08/2020 - 19:02

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I always hope for material left to read in the program during the interval. The crush in lobbies just makes my breathing come fast and my innards insist on a bathroom where the ladies' line is always long enough to keep you waiting until the final curtain.

Wayne Mook (not verified) Mon, 24/08/2020 - 19:37

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Depends what's on and where really. Not a major theatre goer but I've seen some enjoyable shows in the past. Just because something is old, it's no reason to stop, people have been breathing for years and I don't intend to stop just yet. Sex can be a rather cramped and messy business but I'll let you keep the streaming service and I'll stick the old ways.

So with the Mousetrap how do the drop the big red cage on the stage?

Snooker actually started with spectators but was soon stopped and only allowed again once it was deemed safe again, the unsafe dates correspond with the Silverstone dates. They also stopped and started with cricket and some music concerts.

If it's any comfort Metallica said they won't be doing gigs until covid-19 is pretty much ended. We're all in it together.


Dawn Andrews (not verified) Mon, 24/08/2020 - 21:04

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Reading is always a good strategy in a tight spot Helen, and it's the struggle to do everyday things that's the most annoying thing, Peter. It makes me feel a bit guilty that social distancing makes my life easier!

Jan (not verified) Tue, 25/08/2020 - 05:28

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

If you are actually daft enough to want to watch cricket live they are back playing village cricket and trust me me there's no social distancing problems being that theres more blokes on the field than folks in the deckchairs!

Much the same situation with many little local football teams of the non league variety. Come on you Bs, and you Irlam Town! My dad used to say that a Mexican wave at the Silver street ground was watching three old blokes stand up and sit down one after the other.

Libraries are also open again albeit in a pretty limited fashion.

Thing is with theatres cos they are a big part of the tourist experience they will 're start at some point. There's a lot of talk about some new big theatre they have started up @ Wembley Park.
Wembley Park who would have thought it!

Peter T (not verified) Tue, 25/08/2020 - 07:20

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Oh yes, going into lockdown and social distancing was much easier than coming out. A lot of old victories have to be fought and won again.

I have to admit that I've seen the Mousetrap. The theatre was less than half full. In fact, it was sufficiently empty that they still let us in though we turned up on the wrong night; our tickets were for the previous week.

Liz Thompson (not verified) Tue, 25/08/2020 - 07:51

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I usually found the small "alternative" theatre companies, performing in village halls, community centres, schools, trades clubs and out of the way hole in the wall venues were the best nights out. 7:84 for instance, politics with edge and humour. I went to the Edinburgh Festival once for just 4 days. In that 4 days, I saw 5 art exhibitions, 16 plays or reviews, a very entrancing belly dancer. (In a church hall!), and none of the main stuff, it was all Fringe (bar one of the art exhibits). Lived on sandwiches, as I went from early morning to late at night performances. One of the best short breaks I've ever had, Fringe tickets were cheap(ish), and only one of the things I saw or attended was, I won't say a waste of time, but a trifle grim and impenetrable. Based on Kafka, I should have guessed.