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Bridge Theatre 2020
Photo by Craig Sugden Ralph Fiennes in ‘Beat the Devil’ at the Bridge Theatre

10 things you need to know about socially distanced London theatregoing

Theatre is back, baby! Here’s what you should know about London’s newly socially distanced stages

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1. There is theatre happening in London now (just not a lot)

Outdoor theatre performances have been allowed again in the UK since July, and indoor ones since August. Great! But there is one huge catch: they must abide by social-distancing rules. Because this generally reduces the seating capacity to about a third, it is simply not cost-effective for many theatres to reopen, including, notably, the cramped old playhouses of the West End. But modern theatres tend to be bigger, and an increasing number are taking the plunge and reopening in some capacity. Between April and June, no theatre performances of any sort happened in London. Now there are a handful a night, and they’re growing in number.

2. There’s probably something you like on

Even in these early days, the response from London theatres to social-distancing restrictions have been amazingly creative. A single performer doesn’t have to worry too much about getting close to their castmates, so the Bridge has opted to stage an entire 12-show season of monologues (including ‘Beat the Devil’ starring Ralph Fiennes, pictured). There have been several musicals, including a distanced concert restaging of the Open Air Theatre’s hit ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, and ‘Sleepless’, an all-singing version of the movie ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ in which groundbreaking safety measures have been deployed to make it look like a regular, un-distanced musical. The Donmar staged ‘Blindness’, a theatrical sound installation with no live actors in it, which was therefore able to open before indoor performances were formally allowed. Coming up: ‘The Mousetrap’ and ‘The Great Gatsby’ are coming back in new versions, and the National Theatre will soon return with ‘Death of England: Delroy’, a hyper-timely new drama about what it is to be black and English. Even the Fringe is mounting a cautious comeback: next month Southwark Playhouse brings back ‘The Last Five Years’, the musical two-hander that was running on its main stage when it had to shut.

3. The theatres feel safe

At time of writing, I’d been to three reopened theatres: the Bridge, the Troubadour Wembley Park and the Donmar Warehouse. All of them now have hand sanitiser and temperature checks on the door, face-shielded staff, clearly marked routes of travel and absolutely fuck-tons of perspex. Mask-wearing is mandatory. Paper tickets – long one of the most anachronistic things about the theatre-going experience – have been completely abolished. With small audiences, there is no sense of overcrowding: they feel like safe, serene, slightly sterile environments, and the measures feel far more rigorous than in any of the pubs and restaurants I’ve visited. I’ve not yet been to the London Palladium, which is hosting a fair few events this autumn, but apparently owner Andrew Lloyd Webber has installed self-cleaning doorhandles, which is pretty cool.

4. There are far fewer seats (and a lot more legroom)

While the Donmar radically reconfigured its seating plan for ‘Blindness’, the Bridge and the Troubadour have simply kept it the same but eliminated swathes of seats. It’s kind of weird, but you soon get used to it, and the massive positive knock-on is that there are now acres of legroom. Because the audience is evenly spread throughout the auditoriums they don’t feel deserted, just… different.

5. You can bring a friend (as long as you don’t sit next to them)

Seats are generally now in pairs, with a smattering of singles and triples, and you’re only allowed to sit next to a family member or somebody in your bubble. I took a friend to the Troubadour, and she was accommodated by being seated two rows behind me, which was fine because she was still the nearest person to me. If you’re on your own (or with somebody you can’t sit next to) most theatres seem happy to let you occupy one seat of a pair, leaving the other empty – however, you might need to phone up to arrange this, or find it simpler to pay for two singles.

6. Audiences are attending

All three shows I went to – none of which were press nights – felt fairly close to their reduced capacities. ‘Buzzing’ is not the word for a one-third-full room, maybe. But London is used to hosting something like 100 theatre shows a night, and clearly a decent number of regular theatregoers are now masking up and exploring what’s on.

7. They’ve upped their drinks games

Theatre bars are still open, and while you can just queue up for a drink in the old-school way, both the Bridge and Troubadour have implemented handy web drinks-ordering systems. You’re allowed to remove your mask to sip your disposable-cupped drink, which feels vaguely naughty and is a difficult move to carry off with any dignity. But in practical terms, I was so far from any other audience members that it didn’t feel like a safety issue.

8. We don’t know how long it will last for

At the moment there’s not a lot of theatre available to book in London beyond October 31. This is because social distancing may conceivably end in November, or at the very least it’s when we are due a government update on when social distancing might end. Because of the massive difference this would make, a lot of theatres are keeping the powder dry on their medium-term plans. But as a bare minimum, everything staged in London will be socially distanced until the end of October.

9. They can’t afford to keep doing this forever

Most of the shows that have reopened are doing so at a loss: the producers of ‘The Mousetrap’ have explicitly said that they can only keep it up for so long. The safety measures are expensive, and a one-third-full house simply won’t come close to making money unless you charge prices that thankfully no producers have been willing to charge. There is a calculation that things will get back to normal – or normal-er – by the end of this year, or early next. 

10. Genuinely, it’s quite nice (for now)

The applause is a bit quieter, and it’s never not going to feel odd wearing a mask. But theatregoing in the social-distancing era is a slick and relaxed affair that’s brought out the best in the theatres that have been able to step up. I absolutely wouldn’t say ‘long may it continue’. But if you’re missing the smell of the (self-applied) greasepaint and the roar of the (much smaller) crowd and you feel safe making the journey, do not stay away.

Read about all-singing ‘Sleepless’ – a joyful return to theatre normality

The National Theatre is back next month!

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