Why the UK urgently needs its theatres back
My pre-Cup Final warm-up this year saw me at my local Arts theatre venue for its grand re-opening after four months of lockdown. To celebrate the occasion, it staged a pre-recorded film screening from a live performance of the glittering 2019 West End production, 42nd Street.
It was a hot, sunny afternoon which could easily have been spent lazing in the garden, but for me, it was important to go. Very important.
And of course, it didn’t disappoint. Why would it? We ignore our performance industry, and its absence, at our peril.
The public needs its theatre back, and it needs it fast. It’s overdue.
More importantly, perhaps, the theatre needs its public. An industry which has entertained the global masses for centuries and which is as rich in talent as it has ever been, is far too good to be waiting in the wings for its cue.
It deserves to make its overdue, red carpet return, and it deserves it now. The wellbeing of the industry and, I would venture to suggest, its public is at stake. They, and we, have waited too long.
From the public’s point of view, we have always needed theatre and the arts, and we always will. Right now – in mid-pandemic – we are missing it. The very industry that can potentially offer the nation some escapism and help its sanity is being denied its opportunity to benefit from it.
How do I know? My Saturday afternoon visit to watch 42nd Street told me so.
The show encompasses in one, breath-taking glitz-fest, the wide-ranging skill base of an industry which allows the masses to be entertained and the nation to switch off for a couple of hours every now and then.
The company which put that extravaganza on at London’s iconic Drury Lane theatre in 2018/19, captures, through its leading players Bonnie Langford, Tom Lister and Clare Halse, the essence of what it means to be theatre folk. Thank goodness it was captured on film, as so many are these days.
It is for such a time as this perhaps, that we are able re-live theatre through film. But of course, it’s not ‘live’.
Today, the performance industry that works so hard for the enjoyment of others, sits dormant, behind closed doors, dressing rooms locked, safety curtains down.
Its cast of thousands await the call that never seems to come. Those who make it all happen – front of house, backstage and those in the spotlight – are being left behind as the rest of the world surges ahead.
Why the theatre industry appears to be having its feet dragged while the rest of us get on with life is a mystery.
I am not blaming anyone here, of course. Social distancing, government restrictions, public confidence, adapting theatres and venues to make them acceptable to the ‘new normal’ all take time, and money, but there is still a small part of me that feels that the theatre world is being left behind.
Whether you are an actor or stage manager, a sound engineer or make up artist, a director or stage door keeper, the industry is not in its rightful place in society. It is behind the curve of where it should be at this stage of the game. It needs to come out of hiding. I don’t know how or when that will happen, but I do know that it needs to.
42nd Street has a history. It was written by Bradford Ropes, a Boston dancer turned writer and tells the story of a girl with stars in her eyes trying to escape the mundane of life in a small time town in Pennsylvania and her transition to the bright lights of Broadway.
It re-lives the journey of a poor girl whose talent is rich and waiting to be unleashed, given the chance. It’s a musical of high-kicking quality, feel-good faith, hopes and dreams, set against the backdrop of the Great Depression in New York in the early 1930s. That it delivers its message through the genre of musical theatre, with its incredible tap dancing choreography and its lavish costumes and sets, is what makes it one of those magical, memorable shows that we all need to see at least once in our lifetimes. There are others.
The theatre world is itself full of incredible talent which is currently being hidden from its public. Clare Halse is a part of that.
Before the screening, I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with her. She was in the auditorium on this re-opening day to give some workshops to some young, aspiring Peggy Sawyers, the fictional heroine of the show which she played 8 times a week throughout its 20 month run.
Clare shared with me how difficult things had been for the performance industry in general and for her, specifically.
She told me that straight after the conclusion of her run in 42nd Street, she was all set to hot foot it across town to another West End theatre to star in another top musical production, Hello Dolly (also birthed of a book) alongside national treasure Imelda Staunton.
She never made it. COVID-19 struck. Lockdown happened. Theatres closed. The industry, like so many, came to a shuddering halt.
The problem is that four months or so on, theatres remain closed.
And that’s it in a nutshell. The casualty that is taking the longest time to come out of its COVID-induced coma is the theatre and performance industry. It’s a tragedy, even worse than anything that Shakespeare himself could have penned.
So last Saturday, as the players warmed up in the Wembley tunnel before football’s end of season set piece, I sat there in the dusted down auditorium of a revitalised theatre wondering when it would be ‘curtain up’ for theatres and the like.
The industry – in all of its guises – deserves its public and yes, the public deserve this industry. Its directors, musicians, stage hands, composers, and numerous others, have every right to claim their stage back.
And we, who need our moments of drama in our lives from time to time, are desperate to see the industry back on its feet and its great shows back on the UK stage that they, and we, love.
The nation needs a boost, and it is the performance industry, surely, which can provide it.
Author’s note – I recognise that theatre is not the only affected part of the entertainment industry, but I have focused on this particular area as a representation of all of the others. It is not my intention to purposefully exclude any parts of the sector, nor ignore the reasons behind enforced closures and cancellations, but merely write from my own perspective, as a regular theatre-goer.