How safe is live theatre right now?
Keen but worried, Peckham
Dear keen but worried,
Let’s be clear, theatre-makers and venues are in the business of entertaining audiences not killing them, so it is in the interests of anyone staging a show to do everything in their power to make theatres safe for their performers and staff and audiences. What, of course, I cannot guarantee is that the show won’t destroy you with laughter and joy, or that you might die of boredom half-way through. There have been times when I’ve come pretty close myself to both.
But you are definitely not alone in being desperate to return to the theatre but wary about actually doing so. There is no shame in that. A good night out is only a good night out if you are not fretting that you are putting yourself and family at risk. A recent survey by the Society of London Theatre (SOLT) and UK Theatre found that while many expressed a desire to go to the theatre only 13% of those surveyed say they would go back tomorrow if theatres re-opened.
A lot depends on where you live (the SOLT survey found having to go on public transport was a major turn off), on your own individual circumstances (I’m currently shielding my 93-year-old dad, but would feel substantially differently if I was living alone) and personal attitudes towards risk. Some people don’t think twice about living along the San Andreas fault line or on the slopes of Mount Etna, while others reckon that opening a prosecco bottle represents an unacceptable level of risk. A doctor once told me that hospital A&Es have an average of three cork related casualties every weekend.
In order to allay audience fears and increase confidence, SOLT and UK Theatre have just launched a campaign called See It Safely which offers venues a toolkit and a See It Safely mark if they adhere to a code of conduct and can demonstrate that they are operating in line with government guidelines.
The See it Safely campaign should help to raise audience confidence at a time when more theatres are opening up from The Play that Goes Wrong at the Duchess to Six at the Lyric, to Death of England: Delroy at the National Theatre and The Last Five Years at Southwark Playhouse. But, of course, not every theatre will follow the toolkit, and while the mark can offer peace of mind it can’t guarantee that you won’t come into contact with a Covidiot or someone who is asymptomatic and unaware that they are infectious. It’s also worth bearing in mind that now London has moved into Tier 2, theatres cannot accept bookings from mixed households. This means you can only make a booking to go to the theatre with the people with whom you live. Sad, for those who think the point of going to the theatre is to meet friends and get away from those they share a house with.
All the shows currently available in London, from Talking Heads at the Bridge to the immersive show Crooks 1926 at Colab or The Great Gatsby at London Immersive, market themselves as Covid-safe. But if you are nervous it is worth trying to check with the venue before you book as to exactly what the arrangements are in place, how close you will be placed to other people , where you will wait before entering the playing space and any other niggling questions you have. Nobody will mind you asking, and if they do, it’s a warning sign.
Just as in pre-Covid days when bag checking at venues was often cosmetic, primarily designed to allay audience fears rather than really uncovering the fact that the person sitting in D5 had a revolver secreted in their handbag, I’ve noticed that the performance of being Covid-safe (including temperature testing, one way systems etc) can be just a performance and counts for little if you are then watching a show in a venue that feels like an over-filled meat pie. The bigger the venue, the more likely that you will be genuinely socially distanced, but don’t count on it.
It’s certainly a curious thing that we are living through - times when going to the theatre is perceived to put you at greater risk than going mountaineering - but it’s also worth remembering that thousands of people are already back seeing theatre and have suffered no more ill effects than you’d usually expect from seeing a David Hare play. So, keen but worried, my advice to you is: assess your personal levels of risk, check out the arrangements at the venue, plan your journey carefully and beware of falling coconuts on the way home.