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Will The Curtains of London’s West End Rise Again?

The Apollo Theatre during the lockdown
Photo: Lucy Gray

Roar writer Matthew Seaman on how the pandemic has affected theatres and its capability of returning from its mass closure. 

‘Missing Live Theatre’… three words that could be seen plastered across the West End during the lockdown months.  But what does that really mean?  Why should we be missing live theatre?  Why is live theatre still missing?  I vividly remember the afternoon that Boris Johnson first advised us to ‘avoid theatres’. This was followed by the immediate mass closure of productions across the West End. Actors already in costumes and makeup, stages set, audiences travelling into Leicester Square and beyond, ready for the 7.30pm start. Six months later, and the curtains are yet to rise.

Despite the shock of this international industry grinding to a halt, this is actually not the first time we’ve seen a closure of this scale.  Theatre was jeopardised during the Blitz too. At the start of the 1940s, twenty two playhouses were offering a variety of entertainment in London. However, within just a week of the bombings, all but two had closed their doors. One of which being the famously unconquerable ‘Windmill’, which soldiered through the war. In the same way that social gatherings are wholly incompatible with a highly contagious virus, large crowds were also incompatible with the sporadic bombings of the war. Ultimately, the industry had no choice but to cease.

This article should have been filled with advice on how to embrace the city’s theatrical opportunities as a first year KCL student.  I wanted to tell you about the ‘Today Tix’ app, that allows you to get cheap ‘lottery’ and ‘rush’ tickets at 10am on the day of the show you want to see.  You would have read about ‘day seats’, and queuing to grab front row tickets at reduced prices. I would have also mentioned the Adelphi, the Savoy and the Vaudeville, all theatres situated on the same road as our Strand campus. And I would have told you about the perfectly timed Wednesday matinees, which coincided with our timetable-free afternoons.

You may arrive in London to begin your course, and still be greeted by a ghost-town, instead of the familiar buzzing theatre-land. But whilst the surface may seem dormant, rest assured that behind the scenes, it is quite the opposite. Many individuals are brainstorming ways to safely raise the curtains of West End theatres again, as lockdown measures are eased. Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber has been conducting trials with indoor performances to socially distanced audiences. Similarly, producer Nica Burns is tirelessly exploring ways to bring back her productions, with a recent statement expressing her intention to re-open Everybody’s Talking About Jamie this November, a show which has managed to play safely in South Korea during the pandemic. Not only this, but we have also seen Zoom Q&As with West End actors, streamed concerts, and open-air and drive-in performances.

The bottom line is – there is hope.  A new petition calls for chancellor Rishi Sunak and culture secretary Oliver Dowden to design a scheme, similar to the ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ initiative, to encourage us to get back to the theatre. With tens of thousand of signatures, and the government reportedly scheming, there seems to be some reason for optimism.

In these so-called ‘unprecedented times’, we must keep faith. Despite the effect that the Blitz had on the industry, it did bounce back. There were consequences, and many of the effects were seen for years to come, but it did return. I like to view the Windmill’s persistence and refusal to shut as a sign of hope for the times we now live in. Their resilience, for me, is a parallel to the way the theatre-world is currently adopting new ways to entertain us. Whether that be virtually, or through the way in we are taking advantage of the open-air spaces in our city. Even Battersea’s Turbine Theatre made use of a jetty on the River Thames, to stage a concert version of ‘Hair’.

I cannot stress enough how much the theatre industry needs your support, following this lockdown. Please take any opportunity you can to enjoy the luxury of live theatre, whenever you are able to. There is hope, but the audiences are the real source of security. I just know we can come together to ensure this unique form of entertainment never dies out. Back to The Future: The Musical has already taken over the Adelphi Theatre, in advance of May 2021 previews, and Six: The Musical plans to move into the Lyric Theatre in November of this year, next door to Jamie. I really hope that new students get to experience London’s West End in a similar way to how I did. With some luck, we won’t have to be ‘missing live theatre‘ for much longer.

Podcast Editor and Culture Writer for Roar News.



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