It has been absolutely fantastic to see so many of the big West End shows returning to the stage and regional theatres beginning to open over the last few weeks. It felt as though our theatre world was coming back to life and this was the positive step forward that we have been waiting for.
But sadly, it was not meant to be. We’ve been hit hard once again by the pandemic and the ten-day self-isolation rule.
A number of shows that only opened earlier this month, including The Prince of Egypt, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet and Hairspray The Musical, which had only been open for ten days, have all had to close due to a member of the cast/crew testing positive for Covid.
Due to the strictest of rules and protocols that have been set out by the government, which all theatres are following; it is necessary for those that have tested positive and for those who have been in close contact with them, to isolate for ten days. That of course means the whole cast and crew need to isolate, and the performance is shut down.
Even rehearsals have been suspended for shows such as Jeeves and Wooster at The Barn Theatre and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the London Palladium.
In normal times, of course there would be a plan B if someone were to become ill – there would be an understudy for the big productions and the show would go on. But we aren’t in normal times, and the only option is cancellation.
West End producer Michael Harrison said, “For those of us with shows in rehearsal, the thing that keeps us up at night is not the capacity issue, it’s the closure. It’s closing down again, either because we’re forced to by the government or because of isolation rules.”
We saw full crowds at the Wimbledon finals over the weekend (15,000 over both days) and 40,000 people at Wembley for each of the last four games of the Euros. How is that allowed? How is this fair? We can only operate on 50% capacity, or we have to suspend productions the moment just one cast or crew member has a positive result? We are following the right protocols here and our industry is getting penalised for doing the right thing.
High profile theatre figures including Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cameron Mackintosh and Sonia Friedman, have started legal proceedings over the government who are refusing to publish data relating to its events pilot programme. We need to know the results and scientific reasons as to why theatre audiences remain restricted, but huge sporting events can still go ahead.
When theatres do open up from 19th July, these figures also want the government to respond to “a government-backed insurance scheme, guidance for the requirements that will be in place once Step 4 is reached, and changes to self-isolation protocols”.
Theatre Producer Howard Panter said in The Stage recently that every person who works within theatre “should be double-vaccinated to secure jobs in the sector”.
From 16th August, the ten-day self-isolation period for those who have been double-jabbed will be scrapped. This means that “anyone who is a close contact of a positive case will no longer have to self-isolate if they have been fully vaccinated” according to Health Secretary, Sajid Javid.
If this will help theatres open and get our talented sector back into work and doing what they have trained so hard to do, then I am behind this. We just have to wait one month - which is far too long in my opinion - for this rule to come in and then all we can do is wait and hope for the best. What more can we do between now and then?
The not knowing makes it very hard for any theatre to put plans into place. If there is a continuous start stop for performances what will happen to our sector? What will happen to our audiences? Will they continue to purchase tickets if they keep getting cancelled? Will they lose confidence?
As desperate as we are to get back into theatre, it’s important to continue to follow the protocols ensuring we keep theatre cast/crew and audiences safe and theatres open. It will be a very difficult few weeks until we reach the 16th August, but we’ve waited 16 months already - we can do just one more.