I love a matinee, mid-week or any other day of the week. I particularly love it in the winter when you go into the theatre in broad daylight and emerge into twinkling darkness, blinking slightly. There is something that feels a little bit naughty about it.
So, yes, I feel an immediate pang of nostalgia at the possibility they may be disappearing. But, on the other hand, theatre is a service industry and at any time-- let alone the current tricky moment which is so precarious for those producing theatre-- it makes a great deal of sense to put on shows at the times that audiences might find most convenient and when there is greatest demand.
If that is a Sunday rather than a mid-week matinee then it would be daft to cling to a convention that no longer serves everyone, and that originally arose from the fact that shops had early closing on either Wednesdays or Thursdays. But audience demand and behaviours change: a few years back the NT quietly dropped its experiment in Sunday performances, because of lower demand and higher costs. But in this new world maybe that wouldn’t be the case.
Of course, what suits some may not suit everyone. Personally, I’d be happy to go to the theatre at 10am in the morning, but the only time that is likely to happen is for children’s shows or during the Edinburgh fringe when there is a huge theatre hungry audience within walking distance of venues who are happy to munch on Shakespeare for breakfast.
The disappearance of the weekday matinee is being attributed to the lack of tourists in London this Autumn and the reluctance of older people to return to the theatre. But this may only be a temporary glitch and the mid-week matinee may yet make a triumphant return if a demand emerges. A bit like the ageing matinee idol.
Theatre is often tied to convention, and for a creative industry it is often quite stuck in its ways around some things, and that includes performance times that have stayed pretty much the same for many years, and often tied more to late 20th century ways of working and living rather than 21st century needs. The shutdown and the current situation—which means many workers have not yet returned to city centre offices, and may never do so—presents a challenge. But also an opportunity to do things different and that includes performance times.
As the title of Noel Coward’s Tonight at 8.30 suggests, early and mid-20th century West End audiences didn’t mind if they weren’t released from the theatre until gone 11pm, possibly because people worked fewer hours and under less pressure. In more recent times longer plays have often come with a 7pm start to ensure that everybody gets away a little after 10pm. Friday performances at 6pm and 9pm for shorter shows, often with a younger demographic, have proved successful in attracting those who see a visit to the theatre not as the main event of their evening but part of their evening. But that has tended to be the exception rather than the rule with a 7.30 or 8pm start and a Saturday and mid-week matinee prevailing.
But times change and so will theatre times. So, yes, I do feel a pang to think the matinee is on its way out, but I wouldn’t write it off quite yet, and welcome the fact that theatre is responding to the challenges of welcoming audiences back by listening to their needs and being responsive and flexible.
Photo by Olga Melnikova on Unsplash.