What the West End has to say about theatre returning without social distancing

Updated on 9 October 2023

The 1st of November. That's the date the UK government has given for when theatres could potentially re-open free of social distancing measures. It also happens to be Zizi Strallen's 30th birthday. The Mary Poppins star took to Twitter last night to share her thoughts on Operation Sleeping Beauty: "My birthday is the 1st November. If the government could give me the gift of live theatre back, and my job back as Mary Poppins, I would never need another gift for the rest of my life."

Disney's practically perfect Mary Poppins musical showing at the Prince Edward Theatre is one of many big-name West End shows that have taken their tickets off sale due to uncertainty of when theatres can re-open. Now with UK Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson pushing to re-open theatres as swiftly as possible, it appears Zizi Strallen could get her birthday wish very soon. Perhaps even an early birthday present if all goes well.

However, some industry leaders are erring more on the side of cautious optimism. Read what they have to say below.

Nimax co-owner Nica Burns: "We will do everything we can to get up and ready and open"

Producer Nica Burns has agreed with Oliver Dowden that theatres in London's West End represent a major driving force for keeping the urban economy running. She pledged to accept the challenge and make Nimax Theatre venues COVID-secure to ensure they can fully re-open without social distancing.

"We can't wait to be able to welcome our performers back to our stages, and our audiences into our theatres," Burns stated.

The Nimax Theatres co-owner also called for a new scheme that would give theatre owners a discount so that it can be repaid to the production. “A scheme at least as good – or better – than the Eat Out to Help Out scheme. We know that by helping us, bars, cafes and restaurants around our theatres will benefit hugely and we will be able to attract hundreds of thousands of people back to the West End, who will spend money in additional economic activity,” Burns said.

Nica Burns has also cited strong ticket sales for both outdoor and socially-distanced indoor shows as proof that there's been a “pent-up demand for theatre lovers, desperate to experience live theatre, performance and music again.” Thus, it's all about ensuring a smooth transition from lockdown into unlockdown.

Collectively, as an industry, we will do everything we can to get up and ready and open, and wouldn’t it be great if we could save as many Christmases as possible around the UK,” Burns said, later adding: “Thank you, Mr Dowden. Help us to open without social distancing as quickly as possible.”

Curve's Christ Stafford: "Planning for the future has been almost impossible

The chief executive for The Curve, Chris Stafford, stated that Dowden's recent piece in The Mail on Sunday offered some “long-awaited optimism for our sector."

Without a clear timeframe for Stage 5, planning for the future has been almost impossible. Sadly many theatres have now cancelled all programming for the rest of this year, but the sooner we can get detail – and concrete dates – on reopening without social distancing, the sooner we can plan and set about rebuilding our businesses.

We have an incredibly long road ahead of us, and although many theatres won’t be able to reopen immediately once restrictions are lifted, we will, at last, be in a position to begin the process of getting our buildings back in action.

Equity takes a more cautionary tone to the news 

The incoming General Secretary for Equity, Paul W Fleming, stated that allowing for higher audience capacities could mark the beginning of a meaningful recovery for the sector, but also openly criticised the news as being "delivered in such a chaotic way." Fleming later cautioned that non-socially-distanced performances could only become a reality if the UK Government provides financial support to the industry's producers and workforce in case future stoppages within the industry occur. 

With the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme never having adequately covered the theatre workforce and with many workers faced with redundancy come the 1st of November, Fleming warns that a number of Equity members "disproportionately from under-represented and marginalised groups" could end up leaving the industry altogether.

Fleming also mentioned that a larger capacity of theatregoers "can only be realised by encouraging new audiences," which will require a huge investment.

Producer Patrick Gracey: "Social distancing is only the first of many issues"

Social distancing is not the only problem with re-opening theatres, as Patrick Gracey pointed out. Insurance will also be a huge factor that could prevent shows from returning to the stage as normal. Not to mention that for many productions, it could take up to six months to resume at scale and at the cost of millions upon millions of pounds.

Re-opening the West End: Better late than never?

It's a long hard road to recovery for London's West End and UK theatre. Government leaders from Dowden and Johnson to Rishi Sunak have a lot on their plate, and the weight of getting theatres re-opened in a smooth and intelligent manner is on their shoulders. Nevertheless, despite taking the news with caution, many are eager to get this show back on the road.

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Nicholas Ephram Ryan Daniels

By Nicholas Ephram Ryan Daniels

Ephram is a jack of all trades and enjoys attending theatre, classical music concerts and the opera.