Some people are still wary of opening their windows, let alone leaving the house, let alone descending into the bowels of the London Underground and going to one of the few theatres in the capital putting on productions at the moment. There’s not that many of us active theatregoers right now, and it’s proving difficult to persuade others to come along, even on a Friday or Saturday evening, thanks to the 10pm curfew on pubs, bars and restaurants. Standing on the pavement a short distance away from a Tesco Express (open until 11pm) in the rain having a post-show drink is just not the one.
Of course, if one displays symptoms of Rona Corona, one doesn’t venture out. If one does, one is likely to be turned away at the theatre doors anyway, because the stun gun (sorry, portable digital thermometer) just might register a high temperature. And I’ve not yet come across anyone stupid enough to cough in a theatre since The Great Lockdown was lifted.
Southwark Playhouse has Perspex partitions between each ‘bubble’, so their rows are full, even if the capacity is still much reduced because a number of rows have been removed, such that there is a two-metre gap between each row. I used to try to book an aisle seat when deciding to see a show there that I wasn’t reviewing – as the millennials like to say, I’m not gonna lie: the extra legroom the Covid-related restrictions provide will be missed once social distancing ends, whenever that will be.
Southwark is currently resuming its run of The Last Five Years, the Jason Robert Brown two-hander musical about a married couple whose relationship eventually peters out: the wife’s story is told in reverse chronological order, and the husband’s in forward chronological order. Which sounds ingenious on paper, but the ending is revealed in the first line, iconic amongst The Last Five Years fans: “Jamie is over, and Jamie is gone”. If you don’t like to know the end before the end, this isn’t the show for you.
The first time I saw The Last Five Years at Southwark was the weekend before the Prime Minister took to the airwaves and advised that theatres and other public places were to be ‘avoided’. Lydia White had stepped into the role of Cathy at extremely short notice, reading from the book in place of an indisposed Molly Lynch. Without taking anything away from White’s remarkable achievement, it was worth the wait to see Lynch’s Cathy, running the full gamut of human emotions so incredibly convincingly.
The following evening, I went from the (almost) sublime to the (utterly) ridiculous – an outdoor performance of the Stephen Schwartz musical Pippin. This show has never really made much sense to me, but I think I understand it more than I have ever done thanks to this pared down version that adhered to the ‘rule of six’ even before the rule of six was implemented. It was absolutely pouring throughout the evening, although both the seating areas and the performance space were both covered with sheeting. Hallelujah.
The cast’s unamplified voices, however, were not only competing with the sound of passing Vauxhall traffic but the patter of the rain. Whether you caught every word of every line depended, to some extent, on where you were sat, and in which direction an actor’s voice was projecting. Some of Schwartz’s lyrics are quite rapid, too. They were also occasionally competing with themselves – in the large ensemble numbers, with much dancing, the semi-wet floor led to squeaks from the cast’s shoes as they swiftly changed direction. The company made much of the trying circumstances, with amusing references to the ‘new normal’ – Charlemagne (Dan Krikler) rushes to embrace his son Pippin (Ryan Anderson) but immediately stops himself from doing so. Joanne Clifton’s Berthe, Pippin’s paternal grandmother, brought the house down with audience interaction and some ad-libs, including, “Is this bench wet or have I had an accident?”
Billed to run for ninety minutes, it actually ran closer to two hours, mostly because of what was meant to be a five minute comfort break that turned into a full blown interval – we were all very good at socially distanced toileting. At Southwark, too, the curtain fell later than it should have done, as it took longer to get everyone seated in the first place: the 7.30pm start time came and went with many of us still stood outside waiting to be ushered in. Goodness knows how it all worked out at Southwark Playhouse on the rainy night I was at the Garden Theatre – the Southwark staff had their iPads out outside checking people in on the pavement the night before.
Some will no doubt disagree, but my experiences this week (including those I’ve written about separately in reviews) strongly suggest to me that theatre is back. Thank goodness.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.