One of the best things about living close to London, is that there is a world of live entertainment on my door step. I love to spend time in the west-end, seeing my favourite shows and discovering new ones. Plus, if my favourite artists are touring the UK, there’s a good chance that one of their shows will be in London. But so far in 2020, almost every theatre trip and concert ticket I had booked has been cancelled. Theatres haven’t been allowed to open in the UK since 16th March. So I practically jumped at / threw myself at the opportunity to visit the theatre yesterday to support a pilot of socially distanced theatre.
Our theatres are currently in stalemate with the government. They can’t open due so social distancing regulations, but (at the time of writing) there’s no clarity from the government as to when the theatres will be allowed to open again. This ultimately leaves thousands of theatre performers and support staff not knowing when they will work again. This uncertainty has been particularly damaging to the creative community.
Keen to find a way out of the stalemate, LW theatres, spearheaded by Andrew Lloyd-Webber have been pushing the government for more clarity and a path forward.
Socially Distanced Theatre – How did it work?
The concert took place at the London Palladium, a collaboration between Public Health England and LW Theatres to understand if social distancing is possible inside the theatre environment. And to thank us for attending the experiment, we were treated to a free concert by Beverley Knight, one of the UK’s finest soul singers and west-end performers.
I’m a big fan of Beverley Knight, so I was keen to attend for this reason alone, but I was also intrigued to see what trips to the theatre could look like in the ‘not-so-distant’ future.
It was an ineresting trip. It was reassuring to learn some of the steps being taken to get our theatres open again and hopefully this post is reassuring to anyone concerned about the easing of lockdown restrictions.
Here’s what I’ve learned about socially distanced theatre.
Ahead of the concert, Andrew Lloyd-Webber appeared on stage to tell us more about the measures keeping us safe.
The whole venue had been fumigated with viricidal chemicals. This ‘fog’ ensure that the virus can’t live on surface for 4 weeks after being ‘fogged’. They use a similar type of spray on aircraft, particularly on flights where law requires the cabin to be fumigated.
LW theatres propose that venue would be fogged every two weeks going forward. There was no sign of the fog when we arrived and had no impact on the performance. This one seems like a bit of a no brainer to me. In fact, why aren’t they fogging other places?
The London Palladium also has a state of the art air filtration system, a system it had already, as air quality is important in theatre. We were reassured that there was very little chance the virus would survive the filtration system. Even less likely when you consider that the air is pumped in from the roof of the theatre.
Set Entry Times
Our tickets into the venue came with set entry times. This is a 15 minute slot that had been allocated to you to enter the building.
This was odd. I’m that person who likes to show up super early, browse the merchendise and grab some food. I’ll happily wait in my seat over being late.
True to form, we had arrived early. Too early! We had to wait 10-15 minutes before we could join the queue. The weather was nice so this wasn’t a problem at all. Maybe not so great if your theatre trip is in December.
Once we joined the queue, we had to register for test and trace. If there’s an outbreak of Corona virus within the audience, we’ll be informed via text so we can start self-isolating.
Upon entering the London Palladium, our temperatures were checked. This was done using thermal sensor technologies from South Korea. The camera checks your temperature within a couple of seconds which clears you for entry into the venue.
Everyone near me passed the temperature check so I didn’t get to see what happened to those with a high temperature. I assume that anyone arriving at the venue with a temperature would be denied entry to the event. I have no idea what this would mean for that person’s ticket and whether they would be refunded.
Transferring tickets to another date is an option for longer running stage shows but not really an option for single events. The London Palladium hosts both types of show.
Click and Collect Refreshments
We ordered our refreshments whilst booking out tickets. We were sent our refreshment tickets via email and we headed to the bar to collect our drinks before finding our seats.
This worked really well. There was no queue! For drinks! In a theatre! I was delighted. Collecting my drinks took less than a minute.
To avoid too many people in the corridors, drinks could also be ordered from the comfort of your seat. A staff member would then bring the drinks. Again this meant there was less time waiting in queues and made it much easier to stay socially distanced.
Socially Distanced Seating
Social distancing rules mean that there needs to be at least 1m between people from different households. This meant that a socially distanced seating plan was needed.
Essentially there were empty seats on all sides of our allocated seats. Big white signs clearly marked the seats that should be left empty.
As a tall person (I’m 6ft 3), this was great. Theatres can be quite a squeeze for us giants, especially the older buildings like the London Palladium. So having room to spread in all directions was much appreciated.
That being said, theatres need to run at a high capacity to make money, especially musicals. Musicals have to run at 60-70% capacity just to break even.
Although I have little doubt that the social distancing here would work, it did leave me wondering whether it would be sustainable in the long term.
This is not to mention what it’s like for the performers, singing to a theatre a reduced capacity. This wasn’t an issue during the pilot. Beverley Knight’s fantastic stage presence, plus an audience starved of live entertainment for 4 months worked well together. I can’t help but feel it would be more difficult for newer artists or where social interaction is needed.
One time when we couldn’t social distance so well was when someone had a seat further along the row from us. Usually you’d do that awkward shuffle where everyone stands up whilst being climbed over. This still happened despite the social distancing. Altough there was much more room for manouvre and everyone was wearing masks, there was an added risk to finding your seat.
So many events have been cancelled in 2020. For the most part we’ve taken this in our stride. We understood how important it was to prevent the virus spreading and to protect our healthcare systems.
But this experience made me realised how much I’ve missed being able to enjoy live entertainment. Watching concerts online has been great, but it’s no competition for being at the venue and watching the performance. The atmosphere inside a venue can’t be replicated online.
Beverley Knight was clearly thrilled to be back in front of a live audience again. It’s worth mentioning the countless others who are employed behind the scenes at the theatre. These employees do no benefit from online concerts the same way that performing artists do.
The social distancing was a little weird at first, but the audience quickly got used to it and focused on enjoying the show. It’s a testament to Beverley Knight’s talents that we could forget that the venue was half empty, that we were all wearing face masks and reeking of hand sanitiser. We were too busy enjoying the music to care!
After The Show
We headed into Soho for some food after the concert. It felt great being back in London. The streets were quieter than usual but busier than I had expected. We headed to Mildred’s for some awesome Vegan food before heading back home.
Whilst we were in the neighbourhood. I wanted to find the infamous tap outside the John Snow public house. This tap was responsible for a huge outbreak of cholera in 1854.
John Snow was the first person to discover that the outbreak had been spread by water. Experts at the time believed it had been spread by ‘miasma’ particles in the air. John Snow’s connection lead to huge reforms around sanitisation and water supply.
It was only when I returned home that I realised the link between the tap and our present circumstances. Today there’s little in London to remind you that this disease ravaged the people of London for over 15 years, killing thousands.
It’s a reminder me that moving forward is always an option. And the concert at the London Palladium was hopefully a similar step forwards for London’s theatre industry.
Thank you for reading this post. I hope that you enjoyed it. I also hope to see London’s theatres opening again very soon – with or without social distancing! It was great to be involved in the pilot.
If you enjoyed this post, you may enjoy these other posts: