LONDON — At just after 2 on Thursday afternoon, Andrew Lloyd Webber walked onstage at the ornate Palladium theater to introduce the first West End show since Britain went into lockdown in March.
Before him sat some 640 theatergoers and workers, all somewhat distanced and all wearing masks. Suddenly, they stood up to applaud him for putting on the event — a performance arranged with the British authorities to show how large theatrical performances might proceed with safety in mind. Some audience members cheered. There was even one, very unBritish, whoop.
Lloyd Webber did not seem as excited as the attendees. “I’ve got to say this is a rather sad sight,” he said, looking down at the seats, the vast majority of which had X-marks on them to ensure people didn’t use them.
“I think this amply proves why social distancing in theater really doesn’t work,” Lloyd Webber said, adding, “It’s a misery for the performers.” He then introduced the afternoon’s act: the singer Beverley Knight, a regular on the West End’s stages, who was to perform two sets, each around 30 minutes, with an intermission.
As she started to sing a track called “Made It Back,” Knight smiled broadly, suggesting she didn’t think the experience was quite as miserable as Lloyd Webber did — even if she was at least 16 feet away from the nearest patron, in row B, to ensure there was little risk of her spittle accidentally hitting them.
Thursday’s event — meant to be the first of two pilots — occurred at a strange time for British theater. On July 5, the country’s government announced a surprise $2 billion bailout for its cultural institutions, following weeks of pressure from actors warning that theaters were on the verge of collapse. Then, on July 17, Boris Johnson, the prime minister, announced theaters in England could reopen starting Aug. 1 as long as they maintained social distancing measures. (In Britain, this requires keeping people two meters, or about six feet, apart, if viable).
Both announcements appeared to offer an industry lifeline, but only one major reopening has been announced: “The Mousetrap,” which intends to restart in October. Most theater producers have said it is simply not economically feasible for them to reopen under the social distancing guidelines. At the Palladium, Lloyd-Webber reiterated that. “It’s impossible,” he told the audience. “We absolutely have to have our theaters able to be full again.”
The Society of London Theater, a trade organization, is pushing to relax the rules for theaters and has commissioned scientists, led by Antony Galione, a pharmacology professor at the University of Oxford, to develop an alternative protocol for reopening. A copy, seen by The New York Times, says theaters should be able to operate with people sitting next to each other, so long as everyone wears masks.
“We’re not saying everybody should reopen immediately, but let’s do trials and move toward that goal,” Galione, one of the protocol’s authors, said in a telephone interview. Theaters would obviously need to be well ventilated, he added, and issues like the duration of performances would need to be examined, too, he said. (Audience members on Thursday were inside for up to three hours, although they were free to go to the bar and bathrooms following marked routes.)
All 11 audience members interviewed at Thursday’s show — some of whom had traveled from North England especially to attend — said they felt safe. The theater had sent numerous emails and even a YouTube clip to attendees beforehand outlining the safety measures that would be in place, including thermal cameras at the entrance to check the body temperature of attendees. Many of these had been used already in South Korea, including at performances of “Phantom of the Opera.” The whole building would be sprayed in advance with “anti-viral fogging machines” the YouTube clip said.
One of the audience members, Nicola Haynes, 50, said the only thing that concerned her was that she would be made to walk through a machine that sprays people with disinfectant. “I really don’t want to ruin my dress,” she said, “but if this is what needs to be done, I’ll do anything to get theater back.” (The machines were not used in the end, after the British health and safety authorities decided they were unnecessary.)
Haynes said she wouldn’t have been comfortable sitting in a full theater right now. But there was room to increase attendance: “70 percent full, I’d come,” she said. On Thursday, the theater was at about 28 percent capacity.
There is some theater in Britain, at drive-in and outdoor venues. On July 15, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, in London, announced it intended to host a six-week run of a socially distanced concert version of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” beginning Aug. 14. But that same day, Live Nation canceled an entire series of drive-in events including a national tour of “Six,” the hit musical about the ill-fated wives of Henry VIII, after spikes in coronavirus cases in parts of England.
Kenny Wax, the producer of “Six,” said in a telephone interview that the cancellation of his tour showed that theater producers needed more than a date when they might be able to operate without social distancing: They also needed Britain’s government to step in and create a coronavirus insurance fund. “Producers just won’t take the risk if they could be stopped three weeks into rehearsals because cases go up,” he said, although he added that he did hope to do some indoor shows including “Six” at the end of the year, even if distancing were still in place.
At the Palladium on Thursday, it was hard to escape the threat of coronavirus to the theater industry even as Knight sang a series of pop hits. “We might be few of number, but we’re full of attitude,” she said at one point, immediately drawing attention to how empty the space was.
Later she name-checked Public Health England — a government agency that is helping develop the rules for theaters and music venues — urging it to “keep the fire of live music burning.”
In the crowd, people stayed seated at first, tapping or nodding along to the beat. But soon Knight had urged them enough times to get up that some not only stood but danced at their chair. The biggest reaction, though, came when she played to the crowd (and even the many journalists present) and did “Memory” from “Cats.” To end, she sang “Stand by Me,” which she had planned to sing this year on the West End in a new musical called “The Drifters Girl.” She sung a cappella, drenched in blue light, her voice resonating throughout the space.
“I will see you soon, on a stage like this one,” she said as she finished and walked off, appearing to wipe away a tear.
Standing outside afterward, Paris Barnes, a 19-year-old student, said that she lost herself in “Memory.” For a moment, it had felt like watching a normal West End show, she said, until she had turned around and saw the people next to her in masks, and was suddenly brought back to reality.
She hoped the West End could return properly soon, she said. “Just the feeling of being back inside a theater was amazing,” she said. “There’s nothing like it.”