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Live theatre in a pandemic

I saw a few shows recently as a punter and not as someone who has come to the theatre to review a production. It was interesting to observe how badly members of the paying public are sometimes treated – though I hasten to add two caveats. The first is that uncivil members of staff at the theatre are few, and are far outweighed by the number of decent workers. The second is that there is a certain amount of extra work that goes into a press night, which couldn’t possibly be sustained for every subsequent performance.

Still, it was rather odd to be bellowed at by a jobsworth outside the Novello Theatre on Sunday afternoon. Covid negative test check – sorted. Bag check – sorted. Ticket check – sorted. It may not have been in that order but the salient point is that everyone at those various stages was pleasant and professional. Until I had already been invited to proceed to ‘Door C’, and the jobsworth stuck out a wooden truncheon, preventing me from passing, and yelled, “YOUNG MAN? WHERE ARE YOU GOING?” I calmly explained I had already been given instructions on where to go, but he insisted on me telling him which section of the theatre I had a ticket for, before insisting on telling me what I had already been told. He was, in short, a complete waste of time and space.

In hindsight (that old chestnut) I should have insisted on some identification (was he really employed by Delfont Mackintosh Theatres, or any of their subcontractors?) and taken him to task. Not in a “Don’t you know who I am?” fashion, if only because it doesn’t really matter who I am, or who any other patron is – he ought to have basic standards of common decency in a public-facing role. Conversely, there have been a number of front of house and security staff at theatres who have expressed concern that they have been treated uncivilly by patrons, which is equally out of order, and worth mentioning here, even if the last time I personally witnessed nasty behaviour from a patron towards a member of staff was pre-pandemic.

Then there are those who insist on calling the interval ‘half-time’ because they don’t know any better and/or they attend far more sporting fixtures than theatrical performances.

Another notable observation was, although it has already been proven by various statistics, that theatres being in additional income to other places in the theatre’s vicinity, particularly pubs and restaurants. A group of ladies in front of me in the queue to get in were discussing where they should go for drinks and nibbles afterwards, and had various options in mind. One is almost always spoilt for choice in the West End, even with a number of establishments that did not survive the pandemic, and others operating at reduced capacity for various reasons. (Bella Italia, it appears, has stopped taking walk-in diners altogether, insisting on pre-bookings only: which meant, as I discovered in between Christmas and New Year, every other establishment in Leicester Square was doing a roaring trade while they were half-empty. Their loss.)

It’s good to go to a ‘normal’ performance, without the frills and trappings of a press night, if only to gauge what a paying audience thinks of a show. Mamma Mia! has, of course, been in the West End for some years now, and it won’t be too long before it joins the ranks of Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera in having cast members who weren’t even alive when press night took place. In my row alone, other patrons agreed in the interval that the first half felt like half an hour – a couple momentarily felt short-changed until one of them checked her watch and found the running time for Act One of Mamma Mia! was over an hour. The woman next to me sobbed her heart out as Sophie (Emma Mullen) reprised ‘I Have A Dream’ at the close of the show, going off with Sky (James Humpleman) to “get off this island and get at that world”. I think I let out a quiet, “Awww” myself.

My fellow theatregoer’s friend, however, was having none of it. “Stop it!” she hissed as soon as Miss Mullen was out of earshot (we were on the front row), which I thought was utterly hilarious. There also appear to have been problems with patrons singing along during the show at previous shows, judging by the pre-show announcement to refrain from doing so. A new show (to the West End, at least), The Drifters Girl, has had it worse, with at least one performance subjected to audience unrest to the point where the actors were instructed to leave the stage whilst the altercation was dealt with.

No such problems on the night I went to see that show (and no jobsworths either – hurrah for the Garrick Theatre and its operator, Nimax Theatres) and quite an enlightening experience too, as I knew next to nothing about The Drifters, a vocal group that started in 1953, let alone the driving force of Faye Treadwell (Beverley Knight), who became the group’s manager following the untimely death of her husband George in 1967. The group appeared to have as many cast changes as a long-running West End or Broadway show, and the struggle was real for her, even when The Drifters toured the United Kingdom, as they often encountered the ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ rule many hotels still enforced. The inclusion of a large number of Drifters hits, however, ensures the audience have a good time, and Knight brings the house down, as she has done many times before on stage over the years. Back to the reviewing grind soon (apart from a week I’ve blocked out later this month to attend performances of Bat Out of Hell The Musical at my local theatre in Wimbledon) but I’ve enjoyed being a punter again.

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