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Harm, Bush Theatre, 2021
Photo by Isha Shah‘Harm’, running at the Bush Theatre May-June 2021

Everything you need to know about London theatregoing in 2021

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

By
Andrzej Lukowski
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1. There is theatre happening in London again

As of May 17, theatre is permitted in London again under the current social distancing rules, which allow venues to open at either half capacity or with 1,000 seats – whichever number is lowest.

2. There is a lot of theatre happening in London again

When theatres were allowed to reopen in the autumn of 2020, not very many of them actually did so: the new rules were unclear, nobody had any money to subsidise the loss in ticket revenue from socially distanced seating, and nobody could afford the hit if they had to close again because of another lockdown (which of course did happen, twice). Now it’s very different: lots of shows that were planning to open in autumn and winter had sorted their social distancing plans already and have been able to reopen swiftly; the government has dished out a load of money that’s been able to underwrite shows; and optimism that vaccines will enable us to drop social distancing altogether has given people more confidence.

3. The theatres feel safe

I went to numerous theatres last year, and they genuinely feel like some of the safest places in London. They 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. You have to take these things with a pinch of salt, but to this date no coronavirus infections have been traced back to theatres.

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

Theatres tend to have flexible seating, and most of them have simply removed 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. (NB a noble exception is the Southwark Playhouse, which has opted to put massive perspex dividers between audience members – it’s definitely more intimate, albeit somewhat dystopian).

5. You can bring a friend 

Last year there were very strict rules about only being able to attend the theatre with people in your bubbles. Now you’re only bound by the rule of six, meaning that while you can’t currently sit immediately next to strangers, you can sit with up to five friends.

6. Theatres are busy, but you can generally still get tickets

Reduced seating capacities and pent-up demand to go to the theatre again is certainly shifting tickets, and a few shows – notably at the National Theatre – are sold out, but as a rule it’s not hard to buy tickets now if you don’t mind booking a couple of days in advance: a total lack of foreign tourists and a sudden explosion of options for an audience not used to going out means you should find something to see.

7. Social distancing is on course to be dropped from June 21…

Stage four of the reopening roadmap states that social distancing can be dropped. This is currently scheduled for June 21, and would be massive for theatre because it will effectively mean that a load of West End shows running in cramped old theatres will be able to sell enough tickets to turn a profit again. It’s the first time since before the pandemic that it’s looked even remotely feasible for most of London’s longest-running shows to return.

8. …but a lot of shows have contingency plans if it isn’t

Yadda yadda yadda Indian variant – we all know social distancing may not end on June 21. However, few theatres are betting everything on ditching it June 21: some shows will simply remain socially distanced until the end of their runs regardless of what happens (see ‘Under Milk Wood’ at the National Theatre); many theatres are adopting a wait and see approach and will add more seating when they’re allowed to.

9. Still, delays aren’t going to be great news

A lot of old shows simply won’t be able to reopen with social distancing. And there’s also a series of already massively delayed high-profile musicals – ‘Cinderella’, ‘Back to the Future’, ‘Frozen’ – that will have to postpone their opening dates once again if they can’t play to full houses. And that’s just taking the optimistic view that the worst that would happen is theatres could stay open with social distancing. It is possible that vaccine passports and rapid covid tests could be deployed to allow full houses amidst a backdrop of rising infections, but that’s not really something there’s massive enthusiasm for. 

10. Socially-distanced theatre is what we’ve got right now, and we might as well enjoy it

Maybe we’re in the last few weeks of social distancing and maybe not, but don’t delay your return until after it ends: the applause might be 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.

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