It had been a long 5 months since theatres were forced to close their doors for the 3rd time in a year. I was aware I was one of the lucky ones for managing to sneak in a couple of theatre trips in that brief time theatres were open in December, but I had really felt the loss this year.
Going to the theatre isn't just a hobby - it's far more than that. I realised throughout this last year just how intrinsically linked my mental health is to the ability to go to the theatre. That sense of escapism and the pure joy it brings me (even if I am sobbing) is what makes life worth living.
Thankfully, May 17th was the date many of us had in our diaries as it was when theatres were FINALLY allowed to open their doors again, with the first shows reopening on that day. I had my first show booked in for May 20th - I think those 3 days were worse than the last 5 months as I was so desperate to get back in that theatre and knowing it was just a touch away made me feel like a kid counting down the seconds until Christmas Day.
But what was it like? Can theatre in 2021 recapture the same magic it normally does, or does the half empty auditoriums and safety measures put a dampener on the whole thing? Read on and I shall let you know (Spoiler alert: It doesn't)
My first trip back was to see the reopening night of Everybody's Talking About Jamie - a show that has grown very close to my heart since it first opened in 2017. You had a sense this was going to be a perfectly safe experience from the moment you booked tickets. Nimax Theatres have a smart system in place that puts all of the seats on sale and then automatically removes surrounding seats for social distancing - this creates a different seating arrangement every night and allows a lot more flexibility. While other venues in the West End have chosen to put fixed seating plans on sale, this version feels like the way forward (though hopefully socially distancing is nearing the end).
Upon arriving at the venue you are placed in a socially distanced queue, asked to check in at the venue through the NHS app, have your temperature checked and had a contactless bag check. You are told to keep your mask on at all times (though you are allowed to slip it down momentarily for drinks. Sweet rustlers: try and go without) and hand sanitisers are present in the foyer and throughout the venue.
A one way system is in place which takes you to your seat, the bars and the toilets (Even the urinals are socially distanced but I shall spare you a picture of that). For drinks you are encouraged to use the Nimax app to order in advance and collect at the bar. Other than that, there is no loitering. For the people you know in the audience, unless you are outside of the venue, a wave is all you can do.
The merchandise stand is an empty shell but can be ordered through the Nimax app as well. You are still able to order at the bar spontaneously on a separate side to click ane collect, with the bar covered in a screen to protect the staff who are all socially distanced, wearing masks and in incredibly good spirits (Spirits. Bar. Get it? Never mind)
When the first indoor theatres reopened last summer, I commented that the safety measures were great but it all went to Hell a bit in the Interval as people clumped together. That problem seems to have been solved now as staff were on hand to spread people out. stop them loitering and even organise the queue for the toilets (Give those people a medal). At the interval for Sleepless last August, I remember worrying I'd been in too close contact with people in the interval - this was not a problem at Jamie.
As you get to your seats, you see subtle signs blocking off each seat that is not in use to maintain social distancing - these are changed for every performance and are not as jarring as those massive X's that greeted the pilot performance at the Palladium last year. The subtlety of the signs make the audience feel less empty than it actually is and hopefully is more reassuring for the performers on stage.
As for the show itself, Everybody's Talking About Jamie is as brilliant as ever - maybe even more so now as we have gone without it for so long. References to Covid and social distancing have been littered all over the script "You're so LFT. Lateral Flow Test cos you're right up my nose" being my favourite. Several other subtle changes have been made to the staging to ensure cast safety with one character wearing a face mask for a scene where a kiss takes place and another having the kiss blown instead. Contact still happens between cast members though - where would the show be without THAT hug from Jamie and his mum?
Social distancing was maintained before the show, in the interval and even leaving the theatre which is the place where it could be a real free for all. The audience seemed very compliant with masks worn at all times. Theatre etiquette was also noticeably better - whether it is because it was the first night or because we've been so starved of live theatre that we no longer take it for granted or maybe it's the fact that social distancing and mask wearing makes it harder for people to talk throughout the performance or stuff their face incessantly - every cloud has a silver lining, right?
The next night I did it all again for the reopening night of Six at the Lyric Theatre, right next door to Jamie. Another Nimax theatre so the safety measures were identical. One thing to really talk about from both performances is the fact the audience was reduced by half took nothing away from the shows - the atmosphere at both were electric with the performers on stage and the audience embracing their mutual love and gratitude.
I wanted to write this article to reassure people that theatre is completely safe. All of the safety measures that are in place left me in no doubt that I was at no risk from being there. It makes it all the more frustrating that theatres have had to close three times in the last 12 months as it is completely apparent that it is one of the safest places you can be. When you compare it to public transport or a supermarket, it is much harder to control the safety measures there - the control in place at these two theatres I visited was astounding. If they dare close these theatres again, I will lose my head.
These theatres were both Nimax who have an incredible range of shows available at their six West End venues (see nimaxtheatres.com). Other West End venues from different companies have opened this week or are due to reopen in the coming weeks - while safety measures may vary slightly (some venues leave 2 seats inbetween each bubble rather than one while Southwark Playhouse has no empty seats but screens inbetween each bubble) they will all share the fact of being completely safe. There are pilot schemes being tested about how benues can open without social distancing. Where previously I thought I might be uncomfortable sitting right next to someone, given all the measures in place I really don't think I'd have a problem anymore - as long as people use their common sense (a difficult task for some, I know).
If you have been worried or reluctant about returning to the theatre, I hope this puts your mind at rest. Not only is it perfectly safe but the impact it can have on your mental health makes it so worthwhile. I desperately needed a night at the theatre and feel like myself again having been one. While we are still not through theese changing times, it feels like things are slowly returning and while a half empty house may not feel natural, it takes nothing away from how incredible being at a theatre is.
My message to everybody would be to go and see a show if you can. It is completely safe and it will be so good for you.
Welcome back, theatre. You have been more missed than you will ever know!