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Covid Contrary

We must flatten the sombrero and stomp on it with hands, face, and space. Above all, be jabbed and protect the NHS. Pretty much the story of all our lives since early 2020.

Thanking all that is good and great, theatre is back. Trouble is that the monkey is wondering whether common sense has gone missing in the meantime.

It isn’t going to explore the pros and cons of mask wearing and social distancing. It has its opinions, others have theirs. All it is asking for is a little consistency in the West End, and more than a little thinking through of the choices being made.

The entire experience varies enormously, even among the major theatre chains, not just from theatre to theatre but even performance to performance. The monkey finds it hard to forget having its bag searched by a drumstick (wooden, not turkey) on one memorable occasion. And that is not a euphemism.

More to the point, it seems that some theatre managers have never actually read beyond the printed guidelines they have been told to implement.

There can be no other explanation for the absurdity of how rules are being applied, and nothing except horror expressed at the consequences to which clearly no thought whatsoever has been given.

Let’s start with entering the building. The monkey dutifully carries its certificate of full injections – and has been asked to produce it exactly three times - always at ATG owned venues. Quick note for those who find a phone fiddly: if you get the paper version posted to you, it is not only proof against sudden battery failure, but also it doesn’t have an expiry date so you don’t have to renew a backup printed download every month.

Moving on, that “timed entry ticket” thing was never going to work without considerable effort by the show’s team to get the auditorium open to the public far earlier than is normal. Without that happening, the audience simply stacks up outside until the doors can be opened. Those who read the advance email and turned up at their specified time are simply bunched in with those arriving later.

Without opening the whole theatre early and enforcing timed entry, the usually crowded and narrow pavements of the Strand, St Martin’s Lane and the rest can never allow for “social distancing” as audiences are held there. Well, unless, as the monkey calculated at the depth of lockdown, the line starts at Swiss Cottage for the Palladium. It has now several times experienced standing in a long line, the harried staff abandoning any checks at all - certificates, bags, even tickets, to get the audience in (failed, shows start very late).

Some genius also reasoned that if you use only one door that might be better in some way for crowd-circulation - the other can serve as a one-way system exit. The issue of course is now you are squeezing everyone in through that single door and into the small area beyond. A nice touch being that some theatres close the main foyer to prevent sections mixing. Thus they confine several hundred people in a space, say, the stalls, with access to only one small bar and limited bathroom facilities.

In other words, for regular theatregoers who know where those hidden “extra” shared bars and toilets are, and make a beeline for them, there’s no chance of us getting served / drained more quickly and usefully taking the pressure off facilities elsewhere – freeing up space for the dense crowd who are forced to flock together at the same time. What price a one metre rule now? The monkey experienced less overcrowding on its rush-hour tube journey home than in the small area of stalls it was allowed to use with 500 others.

And then we must mention masks. As it said, it is not entering into any discussion or debate on the efficacy or even social mores of wearing one or not. All it will observe is thus: between 50% and 80% of those fellow audience-goers it observes seem to be wearing one...

... as in, it is hanging from their ears at some point. This apparently grants the right to glare at anybody not lending their own ears to the cause...

... except...

In the main, those masks don’t cover noses and have vanished after the lights go down, never to be seen again.

The really interesting point is that in the main theatres are full. Whatever is being said online, in the national press and television news, there is one very clear deduction: there is no commercial pressure for any theatre to take any stance whatsoever. There are enough people willing to attend masked or not. Those who choose to stay at their keyboard and demand mask policy appear outweighed by those buying tickets and sitting masked or mask-less in the auditorium.

Put another way, as someone in my online discussion group pointed out, theatregoing needs to be a pleasure, and if they upset that balance they will lose the audience that is actually going - and risk those who are not going finding another reason to continue not to.

The seats and coffers are full, and for commercial theatre in particular that is always where the story ends. Make of that what you will - may not be pleasant, but it is a hard truth.

The monkey does wonder if testing at home and simply not going out if you are coughing would be a far easier message to communicate - and indeed that is being tried as the monkey publishes today. "Cabaret" certainly seems to think so, insisting on proof of a test before admission. The monkey has noticed the lack of coughers in the audience, but then it is only late autumn, so there is time yet it thinks.

All it concludes is that “Covid Theatre” really does have a double meaning. On the one hand a means to return which could feel like a safer environment. On the other, a bunch of meaningless, half-baked lip-services which end up killing rather than curing – literally.




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