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  • Writer's pictureBecky Wallis

Going to the theatre during a Pandemic

Updated: Apr 27, 2022

It’s hard to believe that we are only a few months away from having to mark the anniversary of two years since theatres were forced to close their doors due to the coronavirus pandemic. I guess that we can talk about it in hindsight now, how naïve we were back then to think that it would only be a few weeks before life went back to normal. Here we are, in the final days of 2021, with life still far from normal. As we stand, theatres are currently allowed to be open again at full capacity in England, but there’s this strange feeling around that everything could change again at any moment.

The Omicron variant has reared its ugly head and is causing absolute chaos in theatreland, with illness forcing productions to close up shop once again, but for those shows who can go again and for the audiences who can back it to watch, what is it like to go to the theatre during a pandemic?

I was lucky to make it up to the glittering festive lights of the West End just before Christmas, and I feel like there is something I need to say before I start talking about the experience in general.

It was in the week I was in London when Omicron really started to take hold, with show after show having to cancel performances due to Covid enforced absences in the cast and crew. I sat in my hotel room, staring at my phone, and watching shows dropping like flies. One after another cancelling shows on short notice, the tickets I had to four different shows saved on my phone, anxiously hoping to be used. Yet, through some major miracle, I was one of the incredibly lucky ones. All four of the shows that I had booked went ahead, with some incredible understudies saving the day and ensuring that they could do so.

I wanted to say sorry to anyone who had their shows cancelled at the last minute, the something that they have been looking forwards too, Christmas presents, special treats. And I wanted to send my well wishes for speedy recoveries and reopening as soon as possible for the shows affected. I know how lucky I was to get to see everything that I wanted too

So, what is it like being an audience member at the theatre during yet another wave of Covid?

Compulsory mask wearing had come back into force the week before I headed to London, leaving me hopeful that many more people would be wearing their masks as there had been when I attended some shows in August.

First up for me was Moulin Rouge, and I have to put my hands up and thank the theatre gods for this one as the show had only just reopened after a Covid enforced absence. Moulin Rouge was actually the first show to impose a mask rule, even before the official guidance came in and from where I was sitting it looked like the majority of people were following the rules. Covid passes were the first thing to be checked on the door, followed by a bag check then a ticket check.

In the half an hour lead up to the performance started, an announcement about mask wearing was made every 10 minutes or so reminding everyone in the audience that masks had to be worn throughout the performance and around the building. The wording of said announcement included that masks could only be removed when ‘actively’ eating or drinking, suggesting that the team were not going to take the whole person sits holding a drink all night, taking occasional sips, just to get out of wearing a mask thing that we saw earlier in the year.

The show as able to go ahead due to a number of understudies stepping up to play principle roles including Adam Gillian as Christian, Tanisha Spring as Satine and Jon Tsouras as the Duke.

To be honest, I was quite surprised to see that show was continuing to have members of the cast come into the audience without wearing masks throughout the show, especially since they had only just reopened after a closure, but I suppose that cast members in the audience is all a part of that Moulin Rouge experience. Covid guidelines were followed throughout the interval, with everyone wearing masks in queues and when moving around, and plenty of legroom where I sat in the grand circle meaning that you didn’t have to get to close when trying to get back to your seat. If I had to nit-pick about anything, it would be about the bar area in the grand circle. The grand piano was still in place, meaning that space in the bar was rather on the limited side, but what didn’t help was the way in which the merchandise was organised. They had a little shop set up for the merchandise and I queued here to purchase a programme and a pin badge. It was only when I reached the front of the line that I was told that the programmes were being sold separately at the bar. This meant that I then had a queue again, and when I say queue, I mean a muddle of people not quite sure where the queue was, just to be able to get a programme. Wouldn’t it have been easier to just sell the programmes with the merchandise in the space set out especially for it?

Next up, Magic Goes Wrong, and this was one that I had been eagerly keeping up to date with online for any news as I knew from social media that a few members of the cast had recently tested positive, including one principal and one understudy for the same role. As a huge Mischief Theatre fan, I was really hoping that this one would go ahead and thanks to the fantastic work of some amazing understudies (or as Mischief Theatre calls them, Thunderstudies), the show could go on. The role of Sophisticato was played by second cover Christian James, with Steph De Whalley as Martina and tour cast members Ricky Oakley and Ishbel Cumming playing stagehands Wedge and Claire.

Having attended ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ at the Duchess Theatre, another Nimax Theatre, during the Summer, where attendees were regularly reminded to wear a mask and one-way systems were used throughout the building, I knew that rules would be upheld at the Apollo Theatre. Once again, covid passes were the first thing to be checked, with each person given a small piece of card with a tick on which was then checked by the usher checking tickets so that they would know that your covid pass had been checked (a similar process was used at Les Miserables and Mary Poppins during the summer). Everyone that I could see was wearing a mask, other than a few children in the audience, and when cast members moved around in the audience in the preshow, they also wore masks. Audience interaction is a big part of this show, and it was all able to continue safely.

Contactless payment was also strongly encouraged when purchasing programmes or interval ice cream and after the show people were directed out of various doorways to prevent too much crowding in the narrow corridors. It was all very well organised.

‘Pantoland at the Palladium’ was next for me, and as this famous venue had been the test site for a number of covid safe theatre procedures, I felt pretty confident that rules would be followed. That being said, there was a slight stumbling block when I didn’t receive my e-ticket, meaning that I had to go into the box office in the morning of the show to get my ticket printed instead. When I arrived at the theatre, the ushers were trying their best to split people into different queues depending on where they were sitting, but it was a little bit of a mess if I’m being honest. But once everything had been checked and we were in, things were much smoother. I do think that a few people may not have realised just how steep the upper circle is when they booked their tickets, meaning that there was quite a slow-moving line of people making their way down the stairs which was not helped by people leaving coats and bags in the walkways.

Whilst most people did wear their masks, I did notice a few people taking theirs off whilst in the bathroom during the interval. That and a couple of the ladies I was sat around taking their masks off to cheer and wolf whistle at Donny Osmond.

Just a little warning to anyone attending any performance at the London Palladium for a matinee, for reasons beyond my understanding, when I came out of the theatre all entrances to Oxford Circus tube station were closed other than the two on the Oxford Street/Regent Street junction. This meant that there was quite a crush of people trying to get down into the station all at one time.

My final theatre trip of the trip was to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane for a performance of Disney’s Frozen the Musical. Once again, Covid passes were the first thing to be checked, followed by bags and then tickets. The majority of people were already wearing their masks and those not wearing one were offered a disposable one. There were a lot of children in the audience, and, of course, they are not required to wear a mask. The Foyer was quite busy, as was the gift shop, but at least there were plenty of places to go and buy a programme.

The newly refurbished Theatre Royal Drury Lane does allow for more space and the two stairways leading to the ladies bathroom in the stalls means that it is easy to follow a one way system with an entrance and exit to the bathroom and ushers there to direct you around. The busiest time came after the show had finished, with what felt like the entire capacity of the stalls led towards the exits through the gift shop, but let’s be honest here, Disney aren’t stupid, they knew people would want to go to the gift shop after the show.

In conclusion, attending the theatre during a pandemic is different but still brilliantly enjoyable. Are masks the most comfortable of things, no they certainly are not but if they allow the show to go on and keep people safe, then it’s worth it. I enjoyed the shows, and I enjoyed being back in the hustle and the bustle of the capital, and most of all, I felt safe. I felt that people around me were following the rules and that the theatres were doing all that they can to keep everyone safe.

Images my own


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