Theatres in England get ready to reopen, but fear a Covid plot twist

Woman walking past a theatre sign saying "The shows will go on"

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The stage is set for English theatres to reopen from Monday, and venues are banking on crowds returning this summer. Which shows are opening, will audiences return – and could the comeback be short-lived?

If a playwright had written the pandemic, a theatre critic might have struggled to pin down its genre – tragedy, thriller, depressing kitchen sink drama or farce?

But they might have recognised the writer’s skill in timing the plot twists.

Just as you think you’re finally getting to the happy ending, the suspense, tension and terror begin to build again.

In the real-world theatre industry, venue bosses have had to decide whether to open from Monday at step three of the government’s reopening roadmap, when capacities will be restricted to 50%, up to a maximum of 1,000 people.

Many have chosen to wait until step four, planned for 21 June, when they will be able to play to packed houses.

But new Covid variants have thrown that date – our appointment to get back to “normal” in many aspects of life – into doubt. We are on the edges of our seats.

Speaking last week, Lyn Gardner, associate editor of The Stage newspaper, said it had been hard for venue bosses to predict how things will pan out. “Do you open and say, well, at the moment Covid infection rates are well down, and get some performances in and get your show up and running?” she said.

“Or do you hold off in the hope that you will get the benefits of being able to run your show without social distancing [in June]?

“But you do face the potential concern that, if we see increasing signs of an Indian variant… what impact will that have upon your show?”

On Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the Indian variant “could make it more difficult to move to step four in June”, but no decisions have been taken.

According to the latest official figures, more arts, entertainment and recreation businesses were still suffering last month than in any other industry.

“Theatre has been hit so badly,” Gardner continued. “It has been closed pretty well solidly for 14 months, and West End producers by their nature are prepared to take risks.

“I guess a lot of them are thinking, we need to get open, we need to be giving people work, we need to get these shows up and running – and [we will] bite the bullet of what might come to pass.”

Signs for the shows Six and Everybody's Talking About Jamie

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When they do open, will people actually want to go back to the theatre, and go on public transport to get there? We do know there are fewer tourists and others spending time in the West End and other city centres, who might take in a show.

According to research firm Indigo, 56% of cultural audiences said last month that they had booked tickets for the future – but 36% said they may not return for at least six months, if at all.

“There is inevitably some pent up demand, and people who are really keen theatregoers are absolutely aching to get back into the auditorium,” Gardner said.

But if all does go to plan, a lot of shows will be opening around the same time. “Will there be enough audience to go around?”

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What are the safety measures?

  • From Monday 17 May, indoor entertainment venues in England can reopen with 50% capacity, up to 1,000 people
  • The Society of London Theatre has launched a “See It Safely” code for venues to follow
  • Under the code, people must wear face masks, there will be things like hand sanitiser stations and regular cleaning, and tickets can be exchanged up to 24 hours before the performance
  • But no Covid passport or proof of a negative test will be required
  • All restrictions on social contact could be lifted from 21 June, although the government is yet to confirm that date and whether any measures will remain in place

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Which shows are opening?

Jack Holden in Cruise

Jack Hextall

Here is a selection of theatre productions that will be on stage in the coming months:

From 17 May

  • The Mousetrap – The Agatha Christie murder mystery, which is the West End’s longest-running show, is among the first to return (St Martin’s Theatre, London, from 17 May)
  • April in Paris – Joe Pasquale and Sarah Earnshaw play a jaded married couple in John Godber’s comedy (Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, 17-19 May, then on tour)
  • These Hills Are Ours – Performer/playwright Daniel Bye and Chumbawamba musician Boff Whalley’s play is inspired by running – and the pair will run between venues on the opening leg of their tour (Woolsery, Devon, 17 May, then on tour)
  • Cruise – A new one-man musical set in 1980s Soho and based on a true story writer and actor Jack Holden heard while volunteering for a LGBT helpline (Duchess, London, 18 May-13 June)
  • Decades – Six monologues by writers including Simon Armitage, Alice Nutter and Maxine Peake celebrate Leeds Playhouse’s 50th birthday (19-29 May)
  • Reasons You Should(n’t) Love Me – Writer and performer Amy Trigg plays Juno, born with spina bifida, who is navigating her 20s (Kiln, London, 21 May-12 June)
  • Walden – Gemma Arterton plays a former Nasa architect in one of three new plays in the Re:Emerge season (Harold Pinter Theatre, London, 22 May-12 June)
  • West End musicals opening this week are Amelie, Abba Mania, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Six and a concert version of Les Miserables.

From 21 June (TBC)

Sir Ian McKellen

Sean Gleason

  • Hamlet – At 81, Sir Ian McKellen will be Shakespeare’s young prince, 50 years after he last played the role (Theatre Royal, Windsor, 21 June-4 September)
  • Hairspray – Les Dennis joins Michael Ball in the hit musical (London Coliseum, 21 June-29 September)
  • Cinderella – Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s fairytale, with a script by Oscar winner Emerald Fennell, finally arrives (Gillian Lynne Theatre, London, from 25 June)
  • Bach & Sons – Simon Russell Beale plays the “touchy” and “fabulously rude” composer Johann Sebastian Bach in this world premiere (Bridge, London, 23 June-9 September)
  • Talent – Victoria Wood’s debut play, set at a club’s talent night, is revived by the theatre for which she wrote it aged 25 in 1978 (Sheffield Crucible, 30 June-24 July)
  • Anna X – The Crown’s Emma Corrin stars in a new play set in the New York fashion scene (Harold Pinter Theatre, London, 10 July-4 August)
  • Changing Destiny – Author Ben Okri adapts a 4,000-year-old Egyptian poem about the warrior king Sinuhe (Young Vic, London, 9 July-21 August)

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What are the reopening plans around the UK?

  • In Scotland, theatres and other entertainment venues in most areas can reopen from Monday 17 May, but with 2m social distancing and a capacity of 100, although larger events may be allowed by the council or Scottish government – meaning most venues say it’s not worth opening yet
  • In Wales, indoor venues can also open from Monday, but with social distancing
  • In Northern Ireland, theatres may be able to reopen from 21 June

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