Updated: Jul 23, 2022
After a few months of closed doors, the first West end theatre flew open its doors today to pilot a live performance with all new safety measures in place. The world famous London Palladium was the chosen site with an afternoon gig from Beverley Knight.
It's been four long months since I've set foot in the theatre so when I heard about this pilot gig taking place, I jumped at the opportunity. In the 48 hours between booking tickets and the gig taking place, I went through a mixture of emotions - excitement, nerves and worry. Theatre has always been like a second home so what if it felt alien being back and not the comfort I've always cherished?
BEFORE THE GIG
My fears for safety were quickly eased - the system they had in place was simple, straightforward and extremely reassuring. All seats had been pre-assigned. As well as your seat, you were given a designated time to enter the theatre. The call out times were announce clearly and cheerfully, meaning crowds didn't get out of control and queues were easily managed. All security measures when you entered were contactless including bag checks and having your ticket scanned.
Where it got a bit different were the extra security measures in place before you entered the venue. First, you had to stand in one spot and smile to the camera - they weren't taking your photo, they were checking your temperature. If it was too high you weren't coming in. Lucky for me, I was cool as a cucumber (No idea what that even means but felt like a good time to use it). Next up was the famous disinfectant machine which sprays you as you walk through. This machine is what they have been using to great success at theatres in Korea but unfortunately the machine wasn't working today so I missed out on my complimentary spritz.
Finally after the endless checks, you were free to go into the main foyer and enjoy the usage of the bar and the toilets. The loos may not be the most glamorous thing in the world but I couldn't resist taking a sneaky snap (Don't worry, nobody else was in there when I took it) to show that they thought of everything when it comes to social distancing. To get into the theatre, you had to follow a strict one way system which led you to your seats. There were two empty seats inbetween every booking and an entire empty row in front and behind you ensuring you don't get in close contact with anyone not in your group. Face masks had to be worn at all times apart from when you were eating and drinking, and they had to be worn properly - when mine slipped down and revealed my nose, I was told to fix it immediately.
It's hard to fault these safety measures. For a "mass gathering" you didn't get near other people and everything was incredibly organised. Any concerns I had about not being safe in the theatre quickly evaporated. Food and drink were ordered through ushers walking around the theatre with contactless devices and delivered shortly after in a bag.
The only mild criticism I have of the safety measures is, as we were sat in the middle of the row, when one of our group wanted to use the toilet in the interval they had to squeeze past other people in the group. That problem could have been solved if extra aisles had been introduced in the auditorium if at all possible, meaning each group had its own clear and safe route to and from their seats. That's really the only flaw I could see in this layout. Other than that, it never crossed my mind that I wasn't completely safe in the theatre.
As the gig was about to start, Andrew Lloyd Webber appeared on stage to deliver a speech about how social distancing will not work in the theatre and pleaded with Boris Johnson to "Give us a date, mate". He received rapturous applause and the admiration in the room for how hard he is trying to find a solution to bring theatre back was clear to see. Here is his full speech:
DURING THE GIG
I thought I was going to get emotional setting foot in the theatre but oddly my eyes were completely dry. That changed the second Beverley's unmistaken vocals belted out the opening note of 'Made It Back' on a pitch black stage. Just how much I had missed live theatre became apparent and all the emotions I have been missing for the past four months came flooding back including the sheer euphoria of sitting in a theatre being blown away by incredible talent on stage.
Beverley worked her way through hit after hit during the first act, seamlessly introducing each one with a link to what is going on in the world: "This is a great day, history in the making" introducing 'Greatest Day', "Help us in this industry to keep the fires of live music burning" and introducing my personal favourite 'Gold' with "If we're not careful we will lose the gold that is live theatre. We must fight to keep it"
As well as a huge theatre fan, I have always been a great admirer of Beverley's, right from the moment I first heard 'Made It Back' in the 90s (ask your parents). She can always be relied on to deliver an incredible concert and this show was no exception. Beverley belongs on that stage and brings about an energy and genuine joy few can match. Afterwards, it was commented that Joseph should have been on that afternoon and she had "stolen Jac Yarrow's matinee". Jac was in attendance and clearly didn't mind as he got to watch the Queen of British Soul deliver a masterclass.
Of course, no Beverley Knight gig would be complete without a dose of musical theatre and she obliged with the most emotional moment of the night - a performance of 'Memory' in the same theatre she memorably (pun intended) performed as Grizabella in Cats.
We also got a little bit of The Bodyguard in the form of 'I'm Every Woman'. For the final performance of the show, Beverley did something I have never seen her do before - perform completely acapella without a band to deliver a rousing and powerful rendition of 'Stand By Me' from her upcoming musical The Drifters Girl. The song has taken on a new meaning of late with the #StandByMeChallenge and Beverley ensured her performance of it carried as much weight and emotion necessary. During that and 'Memory' you could hear a pin drop, the audience were so quiet. Both received her a full standing ovation afterwards.
Beverley Knight is a seasoned performer so there was no better choice when thinking of who to test the pilot performance at the Palladium. While the audience were a bit nervous at the beginning, not sure whether to stand up or dance, Beverley quickly put them at ease and demanded they 'Get Up'. By the end of the performance, the audience were comfortable, happy and almost forgetting about how decidedly un-normal the whole situation was. Credit to Beverley for creating such a beautiful moment for us all during her flawless two hour performance.
Everything I loved and missed about theatre was present here today, including me getting irritated at people inexplicably talking during the set. I loved dusting off my trusty death stare!
Made It Back
Keep This Fire Burning
Middle Of Love
Piece Of My Heart
Flavour Of The Old School
(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction
Shoulda Woulda Coulda
Now Or Never
I'm Every Woman
Come As You Are
Stand By Me (Acapella)
AFTER THE GIG
After Beverley had finished, she joined some of the people from LW Theatres who made the event happen in a Q&A session with the press. It was a brilliant insight into the frustrations of the creatives desperate to get back to doing what they do best, with one of the LW Theatre team saying "Today has demonstrated we know how to manage things, we run a tight ship and people need this". The theme of "Give us a date" was repeated throughout the Q&A with them pleading to know when it was safe to reopen properly as they need at least 4-6 weeks to prepare for existing shows.
Beverley and the team added that they need to be given a chance and questioned why theatres are being treated differently to pubs and restaurants when it was a lot more organised and safer gathering in a theatre. The team talked about how successful the reopening of The Phantom of the Opera had been in Korea, just two weeks after the peak of the virus hit there, and begged the government to give the UK the same chance after seeing how successful the pilot scheme was.
Beverley summed it up when she said "We are the Nations cheerleaders, we have been their therapists when offices have been closed, we have been the cheerleaders when everybody was in lockdown and couldn't go anywhere. All we want is a chance to keep doing that". She also singled out the smaller theatres up and down the country who desperately need support and said how she worried about people like her band not knowing where their income was coming from.
Beverley said initially it was a strange sight coming on to a stage with a socially distanced audience of people wearing masks as she couldn't read their facial expressions - all she could she was eyes. She joked they may have been thinking "I HATE YOU". Don't think any thought other than love, rspect and appreciation went through anyones heads.
Nothing surprising about what was said by Beverley and the LWTheatres team but a stark reminder that while theatres are slowly opening up again, there is a long way to go and a lot of damage has been done that could tale years to repair.
The day was emotional from beginning to end. I wondered if theatre would have the same impact on me it usually did and the truth is, it didn't. It impacted me even more today than usual. I always knew I was obsessed with theatres and loved them but even then I didn't realise the true extent of it. I realised during lockdown how much I took it for granted so having the opportunity to be back in one was an incredible experience and one I will never take for granted again.
Initial nerves were dispersed when I realised the extent of the safety measures in place, and even a smaller audience didn't stop the atmosphere in the theatre being electric.
Let's hope this pilot scheme was as successful as it seemed to be in my eyes and leads to the reopening of theatres in the not too distant future.