Theatregoing in 2020 was really weird.
Or more accurately, it was normal for two-and-a-half months, then the pandemic came and there was no theatre at all for a long time, and then there was an extremely strange ‘season’ running from August to December that involved a few brave shows taking a punt on reopening, that only really began to gather steam and numbers in the run-up to Christmas, at which point they all had to close again.
I’m happy to say that when theatres are allowed to reopen again in socially distanced form today, May 17, things will be very different.
The vaccine rollout has obviously changed everything, and the hope is that not only will there be no further lockdowns, but that theatres will soon be able to ditch social distancing (even if there’s some doubt over June 21).
But the huge difference compared to the baby steps of last year is that right from the go there will be loads of theatre in London again. Theatres have now learned how to stage socially distanced shows, and perhaps more to the point, loads of government money has finally been awarded to help them do so – most theatres simply couldn’t open last year because they couldn't afford to only sell half their seats, and there was no end to social distancing in sight. Now they can, and there is.
Clearly we’re all worried the so-called ‘Indian variant’ is going to ruin everything for everybody. But with the exception of a few larger West End shows, June 21 has not been taken as a particularly hard cut-off point for the end of social distancing in theatres: most venues are taking a flexible approach (ie they’ll release more seats if they can, and they won’t if they can’t), while some shows (eg ‘Under Milk Wood’ at the National Theatre) will remain socially distanced for the duration of their run regardless.
Speaking as somebody who once managed to see 12 shows in a day at the Edinburgh Fringe (not sure I really recommend this), it was painful to endure months without any theatre whatsoever and then months in which only two or three new shows would open. Now I’m happy to report that London once again has Too Much Theatre – and I couldn’t be more excited.
To get you started, here are seven great shows opening in the very first week:
1. ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ Shakespeare’s Globe, May 19-Oct 30
As somebody who spits on emotion and sneers at sentiment, I am nonetheless fully expecting to cry real man-tears when London’s most iconic theatre finally returns. The Globe couldn’t afford to reopen in 2020, and the need for large casts and long-ish run times meant there was barely any Shakespeare around during the inter-pandemic season, but this month the Globe will be the first of London’s major theatres to launch its programme, ploughing briskly into a revival of Sean Holmes’s riotous take on the ‘Dream’ from 2019. The season – which stretches to the end of October this year – will start with full social distancing, with the £5 groundling tickets seated rather than standing (meaning they’ll be like gold dust, but an astonishing bargain if you can get them).
2. ‘Walden’ Harold Pinter Theatre, May 22-Jun 12
West End superproducer Sonia Friedman has programmed Re:Emerge, an exciting season of socially distanced new writing at the Harold Pinter Theatre, which kicks off with its most eye-catching show. ‘Walden’, by Amy Berryman, stars Gemma Arterton as a Nasa biologist who returns from a year on the moon to try and salvage her relationship with her sister, and is directed by the very great Ian Rickson (who is supposed to be reviving his peerless ‘Jerusalem’ later this year).
3. ‘The Mousetrap’ St Martin’s Theatre, booking May 17-Dec 19
The world’s longest-running show was originally going to return last October to much fanfare until the producers wisely pulled the plug as the autumn lockdown loomed into view. Thanks to all that prep, the iconic whodunnit is returning the first day theatres reopen. It’s got a starrier cast than usual too.
4. ‘Harm’ Bush Theatre, May 17-Jun 26
The last theatre show I saw was Travis Alabanza’s excellent ‘Overflow’ at the Bush, so I’m psyched to check out its much-delayed successor. Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s satirical monologue ‘Harm’ stars Kelly Gough as an unhappy estate agent who falls under the spell of a social media influencer.
5. ‘Everybody’s Talking about Jamie’ Apollo Theatre, May 20-Aug 29
6. ‘Les Misèrables: The Staged Concert’ Sondheim Theatre, May 20-Sep 5
7. ‘Six’ Lyric Theatre, May 21-Aug 22
A cheeky trio of choices to finish, but after the travails of last year it’s pretty incredible that we can see three musicals this week, and all three of ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’, ‘Les Mis: The Concert’ and ‘Six’ are terrific shows that valiantly battled the lockdowns of the autumn and winter before having to throw in the towel until now. Hopefully it’ll soon feel normal to be able to rock up to the West End and see a musical – but for now it feels like a minor miracle.