Roar writer Matthew Seaman on the importance of theatre and the connection it has with its audience.
It’s Friday 13th March 2020. I’m on a train from Euston to Northampton, on my way to see the ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ UK Tour at Theatre Royal and Derngate. For some reason, Trainline has given us a free upgrade to first class, I am feeling optimistic. I check my emails and see one from King’s College London, with the subject ‘Coronavirus situation’. It informed me that all in-person teaching would be suspended immediately, and that all upcoming examinations would be held virtually. At the time, this felt like good news. I was on my way to see my favourite show, in a new part of the country, with the burden of revision for essays I would’ve had to write in the daunting environment of Olympia, now somewhat lifted.
The show was mesmerising. Layton Williams had the audience in the palm of his hand, and Shane Richie added just the right level of comedy to the show, as drag queen Loco Chanelle. It was a huge success. Despite ‘stage door’, the place for fans and cast to meet, already being out-of-action, Layton had left us some of his branded t-shirts to collect after the show. As we left Northampton and made our way back to London, life felt just right.
The next night, I’m at the Apollo Theatre in the heart of London’s West End. Front row tickets to see ‘Jamie’ for what is now my sixtieth time in the three years it has been open. I spot some of the original cast members in the dress circle, cheering on their successors who stand in the spotlight. It’s a joyous atmosphere, but under the surface of our elation, at yet another beautiful performance, conversations about the virus are being had. Hugs are preceded by “Are we allowed to hug?” and “Oh, we’re all gonna die anyway,” but the light-heartedness was soon to turn sour. During the finale, a cast member high-fived me from the front of the stage, ironically the first time somebody had done that in the three years the show had been open.
This performance, on Saturday 14th March, turned out to be their last. The following Monday, as the cast were waiting in the wings to go on as normal, a tweet from Daily Mail journalist Baz Bamigboye began to circulate:
Suddenly, all West End and UK Tour cast members were jobless. Nine months later, and this is, sadly, still the case. From that moment, a community of performers, crew members, producers, writers and theatre-goers were left without their outlet. The buildings themselves were still there, but the theatrical spaces inside were abandoned. Full of history, narratives and context, stages remained empty, whilst we stayed at home on Zoom.
Whilst the TV industry and streaming services proved their value over lockdown, remaining a staple in our homes, live theatre could not operate.
But the sense of community is not lost. For the past three years, I got to know and love a diverse group of people through this one musical, who are branded as ‘the Jamie community’. Many of whom have seen the show several times, some are aspiring performers, and many relate to the show’s LGBT themes. In my English Literature module: ‘Theatre Capital’, we discussed the difference between ‘community’ and ‘immunity’, the separation between those who want to feel involved in a show, somewhat immersed, and those who want to feel the barrier of disconnection between the stage and audience; those who are ‘immune’ from any of its effects. Whilst it is, of course, necessary for us to accept the ‘spectatorship’ quality of theatre, it is becoming more and more apparent, in this current climate, that modern audiences want to feel ‘affected’. In my opinion, theatre is no longer about a celebrity being stood in the spotlight, with us in the darkness, ‘looking up’, it is about relating to what is happening on the stage, and taking it home with you.
The visceral group response to ‘Jamie’, that I’ve witnessed from all ages, people discovering their roles within society, and finding characters and stories that resonate with them, is one that induces hope. I see so many young people becoming empowered to tackle their futures more confidently, and this is exactly why we need theatre now, more than ever. Theatre allows us to live vicariously, even if only for two hours at a time, through somebody else. This ultimately provides us with the tool to express ourselves more truthfully. As long as it has this quality to it, it will never simply be a spectator sport that the audience is ‘immune’ to. With the current popularity of immersive productions like ‘The Great Gatsby’, my point is only proven further.
With this in mind, ‘the arts’ is more than just a ‘hospitality’ industry. It is not simply entertainment, and for some of us, it’s much closer to an essential. Over the past three years, as a community, the fans of ‘Jamie’ have come together on several occasions to celebrate the show at our ‘Jamie Fan Events’, which have been held at the Phoenix Arts Club in London. Many friends have been made, groups have formed, and the atmosphere created by a room full of people celebrating their love for the same thing, is magical. And for the first time in nine months, we have some hope.
As London comes out of this second lockdown, and enters Tier 2, it appears as though the hard work of producer Nica Burns will finally come to fruition. The show plans to open its doors to the public on Saturday 12th December 2020. It will play for a six month Covid-secure run. Noah Thomas returns to star as Jamie, and with this comes many positions being filled, which is inevitably a good start for the industry to get back on its feet. We will all have to wear masks, and the auditorium will be filled at 50% capacity, but it will happen.
We must approach the new wave of theatre in the knowledge of its heightened importance. Whether the government recognises it or not, we need to support the industry and fill the seats appropriately. Theatre is much more than entertainment, and we are more than just bystanders or onlookers. We are part of the magic, and so it is our responsibility to prevent the flame of the community from burning out.