Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The next stage: UK theatres adapting to social distancing

The next stage: UK theatres adapting to social distancing

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
London’s West End is famous for its theatre district and draws fans from around the world, but producers are now trying to figure out how to allow the shows to go on. AFP

The next stage: UK theatres adapting to social distancing

London's West End has traditionally drawn people from all over the world to see its shows but theatres have been forced to reinvent themselves because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Fifteen million tickets are sold each year for performances including top attractions such as The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, a play that has been performed since 1952.

But the pandemic brought the curtain down on venues in March, leaving theatres facing an uncertain future where continued social distancing measures threaten their existence.

Louis Hartshorn and Brian Hook, co-founders of Hartshorn-Hook Productions, are among the first to adapt to the new reality, announcing the reopening of an immersive adaptation of The Great Gatsby to open in October.

Hook said: “The show will be re-imagined as a masquerade ball.”

Spectators are invited to wear masks, which they can integrate into their disguise, and gloves if they wish.

The audience will also be reduced to 90, down from 240 previously, and the schedule has been changed to allow for thorough clean-ups.

Hook said the good news is that tickets are “selling and people want to come back”.

But Hartshorn admitted that “we have to do extremely well in order to break even because the numbers are against us”.

Tourist trouble

Another immediate challenge is the lack of tourists, with hotels, restaurants and museums closed until at least early next month.

The introduction on June 8 of a 14-day quarantine for most travellers arriving in the country has also tempered hopes of a swift recovery.

Julian Bird, head of the UK Theatre lobby group, told a recent parliamentary committee: “Around a third of attendees in London theatres are overseas tourists . . . and for the moment of course there is very little prospect of having overseas visitors.”

Up to 70 per cent of theatres could go bankrupt by the end of the year, he warned.

Immersive experiences

The current crisis has left a £3 billion ($3.8 billion) hole in theatre revenues this year, a fall of more than 60 per cent, said a study by Oxford Economics for the Creative Industries Federation.

This estimate does not take into account the possible reluctance of the public to return when allowed, with the federation warning of 200,000 job cuts without government intervention.

To survive, some theatres are offering alternative products.

At London’s Old Vic Theatre, actors Claire Foy and Matt Smith, stars of the hit TV series The Crown, will perform the play Lungs without an audience, while keeping their distance.

Each performance will be filmed and broadcast live to the 1,000 people who purchased tickets at the usual prices of between £10 and £65, although all will enjoy the same view.

It’s a bold gamble when many other theatres, such as the National Theatre in London, have posted free online performances of plays filmed before the pandemic.

Hook said shows that involve audience participation could be the big winners.

“We were already on a boom for immersive theatre before this crisis . . . I think now might be a very positive time for that,” he said.

One Night Records will launch one such project early in October, taking ticket-holders on a journey through musical genres from the 1920s to the 1950s in a secret location called Lockdown Town.

Its general manager Tim Wilson said: “Because the venue is so large it has this special gift – which is territory, you know, space. That’s why we’re able to do it.”

But he, too, has had to adapt, selling tickets in groups of four and transforming the free stroll into a linear route.

Performance anxiety

In the traditional world of theatre, social distancing measures are a real headache.

With people having to remain 2m apart, under current rules, the Royal Shakespeare Company said it can only accommodate 20 per cent of its usual audience.

“With the furlough scheme changing in nature over the coming months and then coming to an end, that’s a moment of extreme vulnerability,” Catherine Mallyon, executive director of the Stratford-upon-Avon based company said.

“And how would we do the performances with social distancing? Romeo and Juliet 2m apart, it’s quite hard to imagine,” she said.


  • Ministry orders all schools, public and private, to close for SEA Games

    From April 20 to May 18, all public and private educational institutions will be closed to maintain order and support Cambodia's hosting of the 32nd SEA Games and 12th ASEAN Para Games, said a directive from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport. Cambodia will host the

  • Almost 9K tourists see equinox sunrise at Angkor Wat

    Nearly 9,000 visitors – including 2,226 international tourists – gathered at Angkor Wat on March 21 to view the spring equinox sunrise, according to a senior official of the Siem Reap provinical tourism department. Ngov Seng Kak, director of the department, said a total of 8,726 people visited Angkor Wat to

  • Angkor Beer strengthens national pride with golden new look and fresher taste

    Angkor Beer – the "Gold of Angkor" – has a new look, one that is more stylish and carries a premium appeal, as well as a fresher taste and smoother flavour, making it the perfect choice for any gathering. Angkor Beer recently launched its new design, one

  • Newest horror film showcases unique Khmer culture, identity

    At first glance, the trailer to new horror sensation The Ritual: Black Nun looks like a western-produced feature film. As the story reveals itself to the viewers, it becomes clearer that this is a Khmer film, with a strong Cambodian identity and close links to

  • Water supply authority assures public shortages over early ‘24

    The Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA) asked for understanding from Phnom Penh residents in some communes where water pressure is weak. They assured residents that all supply issues will be resolved by early 2024, but have suggested that residents use water sparingly in the meantime.

  • Khmer ballet documentary debuts April 1

    A new documentary, The Perfect Motion, or Tep Hattha in Khmer, will premiere to the public on April 1. The documentary film follows two intertwined storylines: the creation of a show called Metamorphosis by the late Princess Norodom Buppha Devi (her very last production) and the