Emerging from the slumber brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, for the first time in almost six months, theatres are reopening to live audiences. As the U.K. slowly unlocks following an unprecedented national lockdown, so too has the performing arts industry, coming back from its longest hibernation since the Second World War. Updated Government advice this summer allowed for the reopening of theatre, marking a significant step in rebuilding what’s become a devastated industry. The past few months has seen key figures in theatre starting to rethink the frankly nightmarish logistics of live performance, begging the question, how do you safely bring a group of people together, to share in the experience of live theatre, against the backdrop of a global pandemic?
Of course, as always, the show goes on. Returning to the capital city for a weekend of theatre-going this month, I had the enormous pleasure of visiting some of the first live shows to go ahead in London. Although I’ll share some thoughts on the productions I visited that weekend, this article is by no means a critical review. I returned to our stages first and foremost as a passionate fan of the theatre, nothing but grateful to be back enjoying what has been a life-long love of mine.
It’s somewhat apt that live theatre’s ‘resurrection’ was heralded by the return of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s award-winning production of Jesus Christ Superstar, this time reimagined by its creative team in a socially-distanced concert version. In presenting the return of Superstar, the Open Air Theatre has greatly reduced its capacity by almost 900 seats to allow for social distancing; and, in what is a standard in ‘new normal’ theatregoing; face-masks, temperature checks and regular sanitisation is required by all patrons to uphold current safety regulations.
This particular production marks fifty years since the release of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s original concept album. This version of the musical, directed by Timothy Sheader and first presented at the park in 2016, is, for my money, absolutely definitive. Sheader’s production breathes electrifying new life into what could (and has previously) been revived as a tired classic. Sheader’s vision for Superstar both honours its mid-20th century rock-album roots whilst still feeling thoroughly fresh and modern.
A revolving group of actors (most of which have appeared in previous iterations of the musical) share the leading roles of Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene. At our particular performance, we had the pleasure of seeing the reunion of Declan Bennett, Tyrone Huntley and Anoushka Lucas, all of whom appeared in Regent’s Park’s original production in 2016. Reprising his Olivier Award-nominated turn as Judas, Huntley has matured greatly in the role, his otherworldly singing voice lifted by an intense acting performance. Lucas brings a beautiful bluesy tone to Mary, evoking a classic singer-songwriter quality in Lloyd Webber classics: “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Everything’s Alright”. Meanwhile, Bennett’s interpretation of Jesus is absolutely supreme. If there was a roof in this theatre, his awesome rendition of “Gethsemane” in act two would likely have blown it off.
This revival is presented with the caveat of being a ‘concert’ version, and whilst the cast do remain socially distanced throughout the piece, this gladly feels like a fully-realised staging. This is of course to the absolute credit of Sheader and choreographer Drew McOnie, who pull off something of an illusion in redefining the show in the current moment, whilst still keeping the show completely and utterly engrossing. One moment of staging during that refrain of Lloyd Webber’s timeless Overture is an absolute coup. Without giving anything away to those lucky enough to see this production, it’s a beautiful and emotional reminder of why live theatre is an experience like no other.
Following the thrill of Superstar on Friday night, I was admittedly a little more anxious of Saturday’s offering; the premiere production of David Hare’s new ‘Covid monologue’, Beat the Devil. The piece headlines a new season of monologues at the Bridge Theatre, which, as a venue, has done a fantastic job of meeting the safety guidelines imposed by the Government. Having only opened in 2017, the Bridge benefits from a cavernous and flexible theatre auditorium, ample visitor facilities, and a large, airy foyer area. Objectively, with the addition of masks, CCTV style temperature checks and socially distanced seating, it’s as safe an indoor venue as you could visit at the moment.
Moving onto the play itself, Beat the Devil is by all accounts a totally engaging and engrossing monologue from Hare, serving as one of his best new plays in years. Charting Hare’s own experience in contracting the coronavirus in mid-March, the piece is part autobiography; part stand-up comedy routine; and part scathing political takedown of the Government’s pandemic response. Running at only fifty-minutes, Nicholas Hytner’s production moves at breakneck speed to engage its audience, which, given the material, is a logical choice for this particular piece.
Beat the Devil is anchored by a commanding performance by stage and screen veteran Ralph Fiennes, appearing as an onstage surrogate for Hare himself. Given the nature of monologues, the production almost completely rests on Fiennes’ delivery of the text, of which he is more than up to the task. Beat the Devil emerges as a searing retelling of the early days of lockdown. Whilst certainly enjoyable, Hare’s detailed account of his personal experiences with the virus also exists as a haunting reminder of what we face and what we’ve been through.
In total contrast to Hare’s politically charged, bare-all monologue, Sunday afternoon’s show served as a perfect palate cleanser to end the weekend. Based on the 90’s Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan rom-com Sleepless in Seattle, this musical adaption (rechristened as Sleepless: A Musical Romance) feels like an oddly reflective love story for our times: a romance without physical contact.
Despite the resonance of a socially distant love affair, the ironic talking point of Sleepless is the actual use of physical contact. Owing to a rigorous (and apparently costly) daily COVID test undertaken by the cast and crew before each performance, it currently exists as the only large-scale, full-cast theatre piece in the U.K., and could exist as a blueprint to unlocking theatre worldwide. Sleepless also hugely benefits from its venue, the Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre. More akin to an aircraft hangar than a traditional theatre, the vast West London-venue nevertheless serves a perfect location to keep audiences safe.
The musical itself is a tonic for our times. For what it is, Sleepless is perfectly pleasant, and that’s all we need right now. Brendan Cull and Robert Scott’s original jazz-inflicted score evokes the golden age of Broadway, whilst Morgan Large’s set (with help from video designer Ian William Galloway) cleverly works the protagonist Sam’s career as an architect to inform the design. There’s also nice work from Kimberley Walsh and Jay McGuiness as the likeable romantic leads, reuniting after starring opposite each other in another Tom Hanks’ musical adaptation, Big, in the West End last year. Sleepless is never going to be a musical that sets the world on fire, but there’s no doubting that after half-a-year of fear and bad news, the opening of a new fully-staged, all-singing, all-dancing musical is to be celebrated, and Sunday’s audience left walking on air.
There’s no denying that theatre is in a different state than we left it in March. The industry as a whole is still largely decimated from the effects of coronavirus and the subsequent lockdown, with many futures still unknown. However, if this weekend proved anything, it’s that even in the most dismal of circumstances, creativity can thrive. As more and more news comes out regarding the reopening of our industry, we await with cautious optimism the slow return of our cultural venues. Theatre is delicate, theatre is resilient, and seeing first-hand the joyous reactions of audiences long-starved of live entertainment, I think theatre is necessary.
Photo Credit: Left: Ralph Fiennes in Beat the Devil. © Manuel Harlan: Background and Centre: Genesis Lynea and Declan Bennett in Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert. © Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (YouTube): Right: Kimberley Walsh and Jay McGuiness in Sleepless: A Musical Romance. © Alastair Muir.