The UK theatre scene has long been hanging on to the possibility that November will mark an end to social distancing: the government floated this idea back in June but has been reluctant to publish any sort of coherent timetable or update. Indeed, the one thing we know for sure is that we’re not going to officially know what happens next until November.
However, in the clearest sign yet that theatres will get the go-ahead, culture secretary Oliver Dowden penned an article in yesterday’s Mail on Sunday, in which he declared that ‘I want theatres fully open by Christmas’. Obviously we all want this – but the fact that Dowden has made this intervention when he didn’t really need to is a fairly strong indication he thinks it’s on the cards.
Hooray, right? Well, kind of. The effort to get our stages up and running again has been dubbed ‘Operation Sleeping Beauty’, in a nod to the pantomime season – but the fact is that most London pantomimes have been called off already this year, as theatres didn’t feel they had the assurances necessary to commit to doing them.
There’s also the thornier question of precisely what conditions theatres would need to meet to be allowed to operate without distancing. Dowden’s article strongly suggests that this would be accomplished via mass-testing of audiences. This sounds nice on paper, but would require a very rapid test – they exist, but who would pay for them? – and presumably also the physical space for audiences to remain isolated until their test had come back negative.
Although a lot of behind-the-scenes work has been taking place in the industry working towards the November date, it may be more of a starting gun for announcing 2021 work than a green light for London’s theatre to suddenly go back to normal the second it’s announced. However, it will almost certainly lead to MORE THEATRE, which is clearly a very good thing.