22 May COVID-19: Masks, mobile ordering and plenty of legroom – what the theatre is like during a pandemic | Ents & Arts News
Being able to go to the theatre on a whim was probably the thing I missed most (apart from hugging friends of family of course – a given) about the last 14 months or so.
Not only because it has been heartbreaking to see the industry crumble and watch as so many people lose their livelihoods, but also because stage performance is simply my favourite type of entertainment. It’s raw, it’s compelling, and it’s fun.
So I was delighted to be invited to the press night of Cruise – which is a brand new one-man show playing in London’s Duchess Theatre.
The experience was relatively new, but equally incredibly familiar. In the before times, I would be used to booking a show on my phone and getting to the box office to collect my tickets.
Now, however, the tickets were sent straight to my phone and 24 hours before I even thought about leaving the house, I was made to “check-in” and confirm I was not self-isolating or showing any symptoms of COVID-19.
I’m a stickler for being early for things, so leaving my flat a smidge later than planned on the night induced a fair bit of stress.
I’ve not used public transport for some time (apart from the odd bus journey here and there) so all eventualities were going through my brain. Would there be traffic on our way to the station? Would the Tube be too busy? Does it still run past 10pm?
After a nervy 45 minutes on the Tube, I got off at Covent Garden – and it was a genuine delight to see it not only relatively busy, but with people outside and inside, laughing and enjoying themselves in the surrounding pubs and restaurants.
I’ve become accustomed to it now but everyone queued up outside the theatre, masks on their faces and socially-distant, ready to have their temperature taken and be let inside the venue.
The Duchess is one of the smaller theatres in the West End, with only around 495 seats, but it still feels majestic as you walk in. I even got to do the obligatory “excuse me, can we get to our seats” to the people sat at the end of aisle as we arrived in the auditorium.
I was worried about the impact of social distancing on the atmosphere of the room, but I needn’t have worried – it felt alive and buzzy, with the added advantage of extra legroom in the stalls.
Everyone adhered to the mask wearing – even Sinitta (who made a star appearance in the audience) wore what looked like a Perspex bubble over her face during the show – with face coverings only being moved to take a sip of a drink – which had to be ordered on your phones from your seat.
As someone who finds theatres very warm environments, wearing a mask wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be – but I was still aware I was wearing one.
The show itself was a sublime, beautifully written, 90-minute tour de force, which told the story of the gay scene in ’80s London, amid the backdrop of the HIV crisis.
It was a one-man show (perfect for social distancing) with only musician John Elliott joining performer Jack Holden on stage.
At the end – the audience rushed to their feet, and all I could do was look around in awe at this feeling, this energy, that had been missing from my life.
The cheering and hollering and whooping and clapping was overwhelming even for me – imagine how it must have felt for the team that brought this show to life.
Getting out the theatre was a breeze – nothing like the mess it was pre-pandemic trying to climb over rows or hurry along the group next to you – and we all just sailed out on to the streets of central London, and whipped our masks off in the crisp night air.
A number of shows have opened in the West End – Six and Les Mis are just two of them – and will stay socially distanced until at least 21 June, at which point many of the bigger shows will fling open their doors for full capacity seating.