Under current government guidelines, London remains under tier 4 restrictions, as of Hancock’s announcement on 30th December 2020 – the capital will be entering 2021 in the strictest Covid-19 safety measures.
The restrictions for theatre on gov.uk, at the time of writing, dictate that live theatre cannot take place above tier 2. With most of the country in either tier 3 or tier 4, live theatre and music isn’t taking place. The arts sector, of which the West End is a cultural hub, both domestically and internationally, makes up £10.8bn of the UK’s economy. The industry is massive, employing over 290,000 theatre professionals in the UK, some of whom have been furloughed since 16 March, others relying on universal credit. It is imperative that the industry restart, as soon as it can safely do so, for the livelihoods of these people and for its cultural significance.
However, even with looser restrictions (for example, when London was in tier 2 at the beginning of December 2020), live theatre is still at a much lower capacity. The gov.uk website states that audience capacity is ‘maintained at maximum 50% capacity or 1000 people, whichever is lower’ – which is of course put in place to maintain social distancing. Ordinarily, on a normal Friday night 37,000 people visit the West End. Closures, and reduced Covid-19 capacities, mean barely 5,000 theatregoers can now make the trip. This is necessary, however, to ensure that live theatre can survive the economic strain of the pandemic. As it is unknown how long we may be living through the repercussions of Covid-19, and with the full implementation of the coronavirus vaccine not expected to take place until April or May 2021, the current formation of the theatre experience may become the “new normal” for theatre goers.
On December 5th 2020, some West End theatres recommenced performances, including the concert musical Six. Information regarding the current theatre experience and what we might continue to see into 2021 is based on both UK Theatre guidelines and a personal experience of watching the show (6th December 2020 at 3pm).
Six: The Musical moved from its home at the Arts Theatre, by Leicester Square Station, to the Lyric Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue; the bigger venue allowed the performance to go ahead with social distancing measures. These measures include a new contactless ticket system, and an online questionnaire which will be emailed to bookers 48 hours before their performance starts. It will be required that theatre goers declare they have no reason to believe they may have Covid-19 are not suffering symptoms, have not been exposed to positive cases of Covid-19 and are not under any instructions to be isolating. If any of these are true, you will not be allowed to enter the building.
Six is also implementing a twice-weekly Covid-19 testing for cast and crew, which to maintain will total £2,000-£3,000 per week, a further costly investment.
Working with Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre, prominent West End companies (Everybody’s talking about Jamie, Mischief Theatre (The Play That Goes Wrong, Comedy about a Bank Robbery), Six: The Musical) created a See it Safely video, to inform theatre goers of the current changes to the live theatre experience. The video mostly echoes the guidance on the websites – as well as the guidance theatres provide to their vendors – including social distancing measures, online ticketing, and the temperature checks.
The video picks up another point that is provided after purchase but is not on the current Nimax guidelines, although this might be because this is general theatre advice that took place before Covid-19. Theatre goers are advised to only bring with them a small handbag or rucksack to minimise queue times and help prevent congestion. This is especially vital as before entering the theatre ushers must also perform a wellbeing and temperature check, which only increases queue times.
The video misses out the new staggered entry times into the theatres, which will avoid congestion around the building’s entrances. The reduction of queues will minimise wait times which is beneficial for any theatre goer – this may be something implemented post-Covid-19. The reduction of congestion around the theatre is especially helpful at theatres like the Lyric as it is difficult to socially distance on busy tourist roads.
Another feature that Nimax are implementing that will probably continue after the pandemic is a click-and-collect pre-ordering for refreshments. By downloading the Nimax app, theatre goers can pre-order their drinks for a set time before the performance begins and during the interval, which minimises queuing and ensures social distancing. This actually made my experience of re-watching Six at the Lyric more streamlined.
Currently the West End is closed, and it is unclear as to how long the sector will remained closed. There are people in the UK who depend on live theatre for income, and thus are now receiving little-to-none income. If you’d like to help these individuals and families, you can donate to the Theatre Support Fund or purchase an item from The Shows Must Go On merchandise. If you anticipate watching theatre, or if you generally enjoy watching live theatre, Official London Theatre offer theatre tokens which can be used to purchase show tickets when the industry reopens. The brilliant thing about the tokens is that they have no expiry date.