Guest Blog: ‘I went along to The London Palladium test event and here is what happened.’
Theatres, concert halls and other music venues have been closed due to lockdown measures since the end of March.
When British theatres shut their doors, few could have predicted the devastation caused by coronavirus.
Despite the government’s recent surprise £1.57bn support package, which many feel came too late, theatres across the UK are being forced to make redundancies – or even to close for good.
In recent weeks, though, Andrew Lloyd Webber announced plans to open the London Palladium for a test pilot to see how audiences and performers could be welcomed back to the theatre, and get audience members safely back into auditoriums.
It’s no small feat with social-distancing rules in play for the foreseeable future to get any kind of show back on the road. But if anyone can, it’s the one that made a mega-musical about dancing and singing cats: Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber.
This week I went along to the socially-distanced pilot concert featuring Beverley Knight at The London Palladium, as part of the pilot shows initiative spearheaded by the UK government and Lloyd Webber.
The process to get these tickets was fairly straightforward: they were free and via the LW Theatre mailing list. I had to wait 24 hours for E-tickets to come through with an allocated time slot for a staggered arrival arrive. There was compulsory mask-wearing and a contactless bag check.
The COVID-era event opened at 30% capacity, to an audience including the public and industry figures, and to demonstrate strict hygiene methods that can be used to enable UK theatres to reopen.
After E-tickets were scanned, we had our temperatures checked before being welcomed inside – if we were under 38C.
Stepping inside the subdued auditorium and with every second row empty and, seeing every other row of seating entirely marked off, as various other seats to allow for one-metre distancing between each group or “bubble” was heartbreaking at first.
Audiences from the same household could sit together.
However, the atmosphere soon became electric; you could tell that the audience were theatregoers who were emphatic to be back inside a theatre building witnessing live performance.
The Palladium has been kitted out with door handles that use silver ions to kill 99.9% of bacteria. One-way systems were in place throughout the venue, which had been cleaned with antiviral chemical fogging, too.
When the lights went down Lloyd Webber took to the stage.
“I think this amply proves why social distancing in theatre really doesn’t work,” Lloyd Webber said, adding, “It’s a misery for the performers.”
He reinforced the message that theatres cannot operate under current government guidelines. Lloyd Webber stated that Oliver Dowden (Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport) was doing his ‘best’ and talked about the importance of pantomimes for regional theatres.
He went on to reassure us that people are safer in the venue than they would be on Oxford Street. It became clear that the day wasn’t just about west end theatres, but every theatre across the country.
In this regard, The Palladium – where Knight starred in Lloyd Webber’s Cats in 2015 – is the biggest of the seven London venues in the composer’s LW Theatres group. For this special pilot performance, it held 640 people rather than its usual 2,297 capacity.
After his plea to Boris of ‘give us a date mate’ for theatres to have some idea of when they can open, the lights went down again and Backed by a six-piece band, Beverly Knight took to the stage.
Knight sang ‘Memory’ from the Lloyd Webber musical Cats and things got emotional.
Memory, all alone in the moonlight.
I can dream of the old days, life was beautiful then.
I remember, the time I knew what happiness was.
Let the memory live again.
It was as if the song was written today – and about the current situation we all find ourselves in, and many (including myself) shed a tear.
Anyway, it was incredible to be back in a theatre and Beverly Knight put on a wonderful concert. I’m not 100% sure that this pilot will make any significant difference in relation to theatres and their future. But it is step in the right direction.
It was poignant to see first-hand the impact of what it would mean to re-open under the current government guidelines, and to that I say, it would be more of a risk of financial ruin than remaining closed.
Lloyd Webber called on the Prime Minister Boris Johnson to give a more specific indication of when performing arts venues can reopen. “Give us a date,” he urged.
An impassioned plea from @OfficialALW about the need to get a target date when theatres can reopen without social distancing, as most musicals operate on a 70% capacity margin and to help regional theatres whose lifeblood is panto season. Says “Boris, give us a date mate” pic.twitter.com/y9IvVqYUNi
— Natalie Edwards (@Morning_Natalie) July 23, 2020
I hope that with the success of this pilot performance the government will start taking the industry seriously and provide a date for when theatres can finally open their doors to full houses.
By Craig Legg