What to expect at a socially distanced night at the theatre


It has been six months since actors trod the boards of theatres across the country but finally the curtains are ready to go up.

A growing number of shows have been announced both in London and around the country. But how does a socially distanced night out at the theatre work? And if theatres can’t fit as many people in as they did pre-pandemic, does that mean tickets are more expensive?

Shows are already up and running at a few venues, including London’s Bridge theatre and Regent’s Park Open Air theatre, and several more are getting ready to welcome punters, including Agatha Christie’s long-running whodunnit The Mousetrap, which reopens in the West End on 23 October.

During the last few days, tickets have gone on sale for Six, the hit musical about Henry VIII’s wives, at London’s Lyric theatre from 14 November, and ex-NHS doctor Adam Kay’s This is Going to Hurt is playing at the nearby Apollo theatre from 22 October.

Away from the capital, venues preparing to reopen include Manchester’s Hope Mill theatre, hosting a revival of rock musical Rent from 30 October, and Leeds Playhouse, restarting performances on 2 October.

For those nervous about setting foot in a theatre again, there is some good news. Fewer seats – with some theatres removing whole rows – typically means a lot more legroom and less chance of having a tall person in front of you blocking your view. At some, you will find plastic see-through screens on either side, to separate you off from your neighbours.

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Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert at Regent’s Park Open Air theatre last month.



Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert at Regent’s Park Open Air theatre last month. Photograph: David Jensen/Getty Images/Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Meanwhile, in many cases, ticket prices haven’t changed, and there have been some good deals aimed at luring people back, including decent seats from £10 to see Ralph Fiennes in Beat the Devil, and £15 for new musical Sleepless.

But some experts are worried about the future of schemes that, pre-lockdown, had been successful in offering cheap tickets to young people and key workers.

And when it comes to some of the most popular shows – including Hamilton and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – it’s far from clear when they will be returning.

Seats and screens

For the time being, at least, theatres are having to reconfigure spaces and/or completely change the way they sell tickets. In some cases, that means operating at 25% to 50% of their usual capacity.

Different theatres are doing different things. The Bridge – one of the first to reopen, and hosting a series of one-person plays starring Fiennes and others – has removed the majority of seats, with those left arranged in ones, twos, threes and fours – with at least a metre gap between them –to allow “bubbles” to sit together.

Southwark Playhouse in south London, will have two rows spaced just over two metres apart, with see-through plastic screens between each booking. So if you buy a single ticket to see its forthcoming musical The Last Five Years, opening on 1 October, you may well be in the slightly surreal position of having a screen on either side. The Hope Mill theatre is also using spaced-out rows and transparent safety screens.

Nimax, which operates six West End theatres including those hosting Six and This is Going to Hurt, says its ticketing system is using an algorithm that automatically takes out one seat either side of the booking. However, it’s fair to say that solo theatregoers may find life tricky as some theatres have had very few single seats on sale (some have now remedied this).

Ticket prices

Some venues that have reopened have switched to monologues and two-person plays, which are clearly cheaper to put on.

But the initial omens are good. Nica Burns, chief executive of Nimax, told the Observer: “The principle is that ticket prices stay the same as pre-Covid. The intention is not to put tickets up.”

Steve Rich, founder of website Theatremonkey.com, which features seat reviews and details of deals, says that for many of the shows – including Jesus Christ Superstar: the Concert at Regent’s Park, The Mousetrap at St Martin’s Theatre, and This is Going to Hurt – the pricing is similar, or identical, to what it was before.

Theatregoers at the start of Sleepless the Musical at the Troubadour Wembley Park theatre in London on September 10.



Theatregoers at the start of Sleepless the Musical at the Troubadour Wembley Park theatre in London on September 10. Photograph: Isabel Infantes/AFP/Getty Images

Standard tickets to The Last Five Years at Southwark cost £27.50, which is the same as last year. Meanwhile, the Bridge theatre says prices for its current run of one-person plays are lower, with many starting at £10 partly because of the VAT cut for the hospitality and tourism sectors announced in July and which lasts until 12 January 2021. Money gained is also going towards the costs of the additional safety measures, it adds.

The future

Producers of a number of big-budget shows such as Hamilton, Les Misérables, Mary Poppins and The Phantom of the Opera have pretty much made clear that these will not be reopening in London until social distancing has been removed. As a result, they, and probably many others, are off-sale.

Quite a few shows are selling tickets now based on non-socially distanced seating layouts in the future, so if the pandemic continues, you may well find that the performance is cancelled and your booking is rescheduled. However, Steve Rich says this is usually “a very smooth and simple process,” and that by booking now you are helping to support the industry.

Nica Burns says there has been a “very, very good response from the public” after tickets to Six and Adam Kay’s show went on sale, and Nimax is expecting to reopen three of its most popular shows – Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (Apollo), Magic Goes Wrong (Vaudeville) and The Play That Goes Wrong (Duchess) – “this year”.

But it will clearly take a long time to get back to where we were. As Burns says, it takes the big shows three to six months to “reignite the machine” and get the tickets sold.

Looking forward, Rich says we are likely to see “sensible” ticket pricing for a while. However, if nervous audiences have to be enticed back, that may make it more difficult for theatres to run schemes offering cut-price tickets to young people and key workers. These are typically subsidised by the pricey premium seats traditionally bought by well-off older Brits and tourists.

“I don’t think there’s going to be very much emphasis on much more than just getting the public in for the first six months,” says Rich. “I hope we still have wonderful accessible schemes, but I’m not sure.”



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