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Ask Lyn: I have a cold, should I still go to the theatre?

Ask Lyn: I have a cold, should I still go to the theatre?

Ask Lyn: I have a cold, should I still go to the theatre? cover photo on Stagedoor
"Dear Lyn, I have tickets for the theatre day after tomorrow, but I have a bad cold (it's not Covid as I've done a lateral flow test). Should I still go?" - Justine, Soho

Hello Justine,

In the before times, you would probably have still pitched up without a second thought and sneezed and spluttered over everyone. As the early 20th century theatre critic James Agate once observed, “long experience has taught me that in England nobody goes to the theatre unless he or she has bronchitis.” Many a Pinter pause has been ruined by a hacking cough.

But Covid has changed attitudes. A persistent cougher in any auditorium at the moment is likely to empty it swiftly. A sniffle will make people look askance. The last year has brought about a long overdue cultural shift in British society, one that might finally get rid of the idea that carrying on when you are ill is not being heroic but potentially creating a super spreading event. Presenteeism, which means that people feel obliged to turn up for work or indeed the theatre while ill and spreading their germs, has long been a peculiarly UK trait. It's also one that, prior to the pandemic, many foreign governments warned about on their travel advice websites.

I suspect that Covid has changed that. Whereas once, theatregoers would have just accepted fellow audience members' indispositions as a fact of life and looked on them benignly, that is unlikely to be the case moving forward. Theatres too will be very nervous of becoming linked to a super-spreading event, particularly at a moment when they're working so hard to prove their safety credentials using practices including mask wearing, social distancing and temperature checks. Your cold may well fall foul of the latter. Or it could turn out to be a case of Covid that escaped your useful but not-100%-accurate lateral flow test. In any case, better safe than sorry. Nobody wants to be a typhoid Mary.

The difficulty for theatregoers in the past has been that once your tickets were booked it was almost impossible to change them. That meant that people were inclined to go to the theatre even when they were under the weather because otherwise, they risked losing a considerable amount of money. It was a policy that inevitably contributed to the fact that on some nights, particularly in the winter, many theatre auditoriums sounded like fever hospitals.

Covid has led to a policy change. Currently theatres say on their websites that if you or anyone in your household or bubble is feeling unwell or has displayed any symptoms of Covid-19 in the 10 days prior to your visit you should stay home. They advise that if you contact the box office you will be able to rearrange your visit. That is exactly what you should do, Justine.

I think the big question for theatre moving forward is whether or not it is willing to retain these kind of ticket rearranging policies as restrictions are lifted and society opens up. On one hand, it leaves them open to being abused by those who simply decide they no longer fancy the theatre tonight or who are presented with a better offer. On the other, theatre may for many months or even years need to do everything it can to tempt people back and make them feel they are safe.

After all, we live in a world where many things we book, whether a hotel room or a train, come with the possibility of being changed (sometimes for free and sometimes for either a small fee or a slightly raised payment). That might come to be the norm in theatre too. Long overdue, I’d say.

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Lyn Gardner

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