Updated: Jan 12, 2021
Yesterday we were very excited to travel into Central London and attend a LIVE event in a THEATRE, the first since West End theatres were forced to close in mid-March.
As part of the government‘s official pilot programme, Andrew Lloyd Webber hosted a socially distanced event at his iconic venue, The London Palladium – with specially invited guests and a spectacular live performance from Beverley Knight.
In order to comply with government restrictions, The London Palladium which usually has a capacity of 2,286 patrons, was limited to an audience of just 650 people.
Whilst the event successfully proved that ‘indoor socially distanced performances’ can safely be held, and that although slightly unusual at times (for both the audience and those on stage) an enjoyable experience – it is clear that it will not be financially viable for the majority of venues to re-open under these restrictions.
This is how it worked:
All ticket holders were allocated a time slot for entrance, staggered between 1pm and 1.45pm.
With the excitement of actually going out, many of the 650 attendees arrived early – whilst waiting on Argyll Street for their dedicated time, a sensibly distanced ‘crowd’ gathered, watched on by confused passes-by and various photographers & journalists.
When each time slot was announced, a small queue would form at one of the three doors. Whilst queueing, we were asked to scan a QR Code with our smart phones, delivering a document to our phone to complete, part of the Palladium's Track & Trace system.
Security checks on bags were carried out by staff behind a glass screen and tickets checked on our phones – all completely contactless. For those without smart phones, tickets can also be printed and a paper Track & Trace form can be completed.
Next up was the Digital Temperature Check, all very simple! Stand on a spot on the floor – look into a large screen – a member of staff (hopefully) delivers the news that you can enter the building.
In the unfortunate situation of being denied entry at this stage due to a high temperature, tickets are exchangeable/refundable.
Final step before entering was a visit to one of the many Sanitising Stations positioned around the building and putting on your (mandatory) face covering, then you are free to go inside!
Situated just inside the theatre are large Sanitising Misting Portals – patrons walk through and are ‘misted’ head-to-toe with a sanitising solution. As these will not be required of all venues, they were not used during the pilot event.
Upon entering the Front of House area, a one-way system was in place, leading us to the various bars (offering a limited menu), toilets and through to the auditorium.
All of the very helpful staff were either wearing masks, behind screens – or both.
Upon entrance/exit of all bars, toilets and the auditorium more Sanitising Stations were positioned, which we were encouraged to use.
As we entered the Stalls, we were both instantly impressed with the operation, but also faced a moment of sadness – as we saw the reality of the situation… Every other row was out of action – as was at least two seats between each booking in each row.
In total, only 30% of all of the Palladium's seats could be used to ensure social distancing.
Again, a one-way system was in place, directing you around the auditorium to your seats, the toilets and exits.
Staff were on hand to take contactless drink orders and payments, which were speedily delivered to you in your seats, in a paper back to limit staff contact with your items.
Masks are mandatory throughout your entire visit and performance – however you are allowed to briefly remove this to eat or drink.
Andrew Lloyd Webber began the proceedings with an impassioned speech:
“This is a rather sad sight. I am so grateful to you all for coming and being our guinea pigs like this. But the Palladium is meant to be full. It’s a theatre that wants to love you. I think this [event] will amply prove why social distancing in theatre doesn’t work. It’s a misery for the performers, I know. Thank you, Beverley [Knight] for being so brave as to be with us. If this was a comedy, one of the things you like to hear is other people laugh, and if you’re miles apart it’s no good. But, it’s a start.
I know it’s a sad sight, but one thing I would like to say is [culture secretary] Oliver Dowden is really trying to do his best for all of us. I know it’s a difficult time and he’s had an awful lot of other things on his plate as well. I think what he is trying to negotiate for the arts is great, although we would love to know what that [emergency funding] package means at some point. That would be quite helpful.
It all came home to me the other day, thinking about that package, and I was working in Abbey Road with a socially-distanced orchestra. That’s an interesting experience, when you have not got all of the orchestra together and have to do it in bits and pieces. But that is another thing. I ran into one of the country’s greatest viola players, an extraordinary instrumentalist, and I asked what she was doing and she said she was packing groceries. This is where we are now and we have to do something about it.
This is why we are here today. I want to stress one thing. The measures we are taking at the Palladium are not about getting the London Palladium open – it has nothing to do with that. It’s about my passion for theatre and for live entertainment all over the country, all over the world.
Up there, I can see the seat I sat in the first time I ever saw anything in live theatre, which was the Palladium pantomime when I was about seven. It’s one of those experiences you cannot ever eradicate. One of the things that turned me on to theatres and I was lucky enough that soon after that I fell in love with musicals and saw My Fair Lady and West Side Story. They were live, it was theatre and it absolutely grabbed me. Theatre is my life and the one thing that I really feel I can do is give something back to the profession that has been so good to me.
We brought in these measures from Korea – very lucky that when lockdown started here, The Phantom of the Opera in Seoul reopened. They were very much ahead with all the measures and we were able to adopt all of the measures Korea had. One of them – a couple of things that may not be obvious – is that this theatre was fogged yesterday and the chemical that it is fogged with is effective against the virus for four weeks, but we would do it every fortnight. Another thing that is extremely important is the quality of air in buildings and here in the Palladium and all my theatres I think air quality is vitally important as it helps the audience experience, and apart from anything else nobody wants to be stuffy. The air here is sucked in from above the building and is then filtered, and expelled from through the building in a better state than when it came in, so you are safer in here than you are on Oxford Street.
But, I wanted to conclude and remind us all theatre is not like the cinema. You can’t just get a film and project it. When we are allowed to reopen again, it is going to take at least four to six weeks even for a long-running show to get back up again, particularly now as actors have moved on or whatever.
And the second thing I think is important to remember is a new show will take much much longer than that – it could take nine months. You have to make decisions about whether to build scenery and you have to get shops open to do all of that. It’s not something that can be done just like that. So, what we badly need is a date when we can reopen, a date that at least we can be given as a target. Of course, we all understand that if there is another spike in the virus – or god forbid the pandemic rethinks itself or whatever – we absolutely know we can’t reopen, but we need a target date when we can reopen without social distancing.
A musical needs to take 70% capacity just to break even, let alone repay all its investment, and a play a little less. But we have to have our theatres able to be full again.
One final thing in emphasising that – I think it’s vital – vital – you understand this is not about my theatres, it’s about getting all venues where live entertainment takes place open. We must make a plea for the regions and pantomimes. I know from Michael Harrison, one of the great pantomime producers in Britain, that if he doesn’t know by August 1 that pantomimes can open without social distancing that he cannot proceed and that means that the lifeblood that theatres depend on will evaporate and go and this cannot be allowed. We must get the regional theatres open.
So my plea to Boris is “Give us a date, mate”.”
We were then treated to a concert by the incredible Beverley Knight! A mix of her own hits and some musical theatre numbers – performed with her ‘socially distanced’ band and singers.
Wearing masks – with the theatre so empty – the initial feeling from me, and I’d assume majority of others, was that this could be a slightly odd and uncomfortable experience – and at first it was. That soon passed, with Beverley giving her absolute ALL to entertain and cheering and dancing from the audience.
Both Beverley and the audience (well at least me and a few others I saw) found it hard to not get emotional and times – especially during Memories from Cats and her closing, acapella version of Stand By Me – there may have been a few tears….!
At both the interval and end of the show, all guests carefully followed the one-way systems to exit the auditorium, towards the toilets and exits – again being encouraged to use the Sanitising Stations as we did.
Throughout the entire event I felt that the entire LW Theatres and London Palladium teams were doing everything possible to ensure us a safe and enjoyable experience.
I for one, can not wait for the theatre industry to return in full and will be in attendance as soon as I can again – however this will unfortunately not be the case whilst socially distancing still needs to be adhered to.
Dan Savage Director – London For Groups and Plus Ten Media LTD