Though London theatres had begun to welcome back socially distanced audiences—and the early stages of vaccine distribution offer hope for more raised curtains in 2021—the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic still underscore the unpredictability and stop-and-go nature of the artform’s return. As the U.K. Government places London in its Tier 3 alert level, West End theatres will have to shut down (again) beginning December 16, with no clear timeline on when this new shutdown will be lifted.
Julian Bird, chief executive of the umbrella organizations Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre, says the new closure will lead to "catastrophic financial difficulties for venues, producers, and thousands of industry workers—especially the freelancers who make up 70 percent of the theatre workforce." He continues: "We urge Government to recognize the huge strain this has placed onto the sector and look at rapid compensation to protect theatres and their staff over Christmas."
London productions of various scales have managed to come back after going dark in March, albeit to much smaller crowds and with a litany of public safety protocols. In the West End, fan-favorite Six has held temporary court at the Lyric Theatre since December 5; Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is back at the Apollo Theatre as of December 12 (both had earlier reopening dates planned, but were halted due to lockdown measures in November). A staged concert of Les Misérables opened as planned December 5 at the Sondheim Theatre.
Other London venues, such as the National Theatre and the Old Vic, have leaned into a digital approach, with the former presenting its first panto (Dick Whittington) in-person and virtually and the latter streaming performances (including A Christmas Carol) live from its auditorium.
Sonia Friedman, joined Bird and several other heavy-hitter producers in the U.K in voicing disapproval of the new measure, particularly as the theatres' contact tracing systems have not linked any cases of infection to attending a show. "All the effort and energy, not to even mention the expense, of reopening shows safely has once again been undercut by a decision that will devastate our industry and its freelance workforce—many of whom have still not received any government support and now face a further loss of employment," she says. Friedman was the producer of The Comeback from comedy duo The Pin, which had begun performances at the Noël Coward Theatre earlier this month.
On the other side of the pond, Broadway shows are shuttered through at least May 30, 2021.