The West End's Comeback: London Theater Reopens

LONDON — At 8:30 p.m. on Monday, two friends were huddling outside St. Martin’s Theater in London’s West End doing something no one has ...


LONDON — At 8:30 p.m. on Monday, two friends were huddling outside St. Martin’s Theater in London’s West End doing something no one has for 14 months: arguing during the intermission over who was the murderer in “The Mousetrap,” Agatha Christie’s long-running whodunit.

“I’m convinced it’s the posh woman who runs the hotel,” said Lockie Chapman, 40, a singer, before immediately changing his mind.

“Actually, it’s the major!” he said. “Or how about that shifty Italian dude?” he added.

“The shifty Italian dude?” replied Rah Petherbridge, 37. “But he could be a red herring!”

Such debates have rung out outside the “The Mousetrap” ever since it debuted in 1952, but those accompanying the show’s 28,200th performance on Monday were significant. They marked the reopening of the West End.

Since March last year, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down Britain, the country’s theaters have been effectively dark. A few shows, including “The Mousetrap,” tried to come back last fall, only for a second lockdown to keep them from even making it to rehearsals.

Several tried again in December, including “Six,” the hit musical about the wives of Henry VIII, but they managed only a handful of performances before they were shut once more. Theaters had to perform to online audiences if they wanted to keep working.

Monday’s comeback felt like it was actually permanent, 15 audience members said in interviews, many highlighting Britain’s speedy vaccination campaign as the reason for their optimism. (Over 55 percent of the British population has received at least one dose, a higher proportion than in the United States.) A small but worrying surge in coronavirus cases in Britain, linked to a variant first identified in India, did not dampen their mood.

“I really think we’re back for good this time,” said Matthew Lumby, 48, a civil servant. “I wouldn’t be certain we’ll be without face masks for a while, but if wearing one’s the price of being back in a theater again, it’s a small one to pay.”

The mood was similar at the nearby Royal Opera House, which also reopened on Monday, with Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito.” “I feel confident this time it’s for good,” said Katie Connor, 40, as several huge Rolls Royces pulled up with glamorous operagoers.

“I’m just so happy to be back,” she added. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to ugly-cry for the whole two hours and 25 minutes of the show.”

England’s theaters are not immediately allowed to return to their prepandemic state. For now, shows can open only at 50 percent capacity, and audience members must wear face masks throughout performances.

Social-distancing rules are supposed to be removed June 21, allowing full capacity, but on Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that the date might be pushed back because of the recent rise in cases.

“I have to level with you that this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress,” Johnson said.

It would be “financially bumpy” for “The Mousetrap” if distancing weren’t removed soon, said Adam Spiegel, the show’s producer, but he insisted that he would keep the show open no matter what, to give the actors and crew work. “It’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Several other major West End shows are reopening this week, including “Six” and “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” a hit musical about a boy’s attempts to become a drag queen, with a host of others to come across England in coming months. But on Monday, the spotlight was left largely to “The Mousetrap,” which holds a Guinness world record for the longest-running play.

It was “a bit bizarre” for “The Mousetrap” to be at the vanguard of theater’s return, Spiegel said. Critics have been calling it “an anachronism” since at least the 1970s, lacking the technical bells and whistles one would expect of a modern production. But Spiegel said that it was the best play to reopen the West End, as it had become a symbol of the city.

“It’s been through all the ups and downs of British life of the last 70 years: terrorism, economic recessions, this,” he said. “There’s not a scientific answer to why it should be first. It just feels right.”

The play hadn’t needed much rewriting to lessen coronavirus risks, except the removal of one kiss, Spiegel said. Agatha Christie wrote the play just after World War II, he added, when British people “weren’t that kissy-wissy.”

“So it fortunately lends itself quite well to social distancing,” he added.

Backstage, though, there had been a few changes. Two casts were hired, so if one has to isolate, the other can step in. Cast and crew also had to stay distant, which meant the show’s wind machine could no longer be used, as the person operating it would have had to stand next to an actor backstage.

Other shows are adopting similar measures. On Monday, the director Michael Longhurst started rehearsals for a revival of Nick Payne’s relationship drama “Constellations” at the Donmar Warehouse. He hired four two-person casts — including famous names like Zoë Wanamaker — to try to ensure that the show wouldn’t suffer any coronavirus-induced closures, he said. “It’s such a complicated balancing act for every production,” he added.

Other theaters across England are similarly focused on small shows with lower coronavirus risks for now. The Theater Royal in Bath in southwestern England, for instance, is reopening May 25 not with a play, but with Ralph Fiennes performing T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” The performance will then travel around England.

England’s theatrical reopening puts it ahead of Europe’s other major theater centers. In Paris, theaters may open from Wednesday, but they must finish by 9 p.m. and are allowed only 35 percent capacity. Some theaters have said that they can’t reopen under those conditions. Others have said that they can’t because they’re occupied by students protesting a lack of support for arts workers.

In Berlin, theaters are also allowed to reopen on Wednesday, but only outdoors.

In the West End, most theater owners and producers seem happy to accept restrictions, including the potential use of coronavirus passports to guarantee entry. “Whatever is necessary to restart people’s ability to enjoy theater I’m OK with,” Spiegel, of “The Mousetrap,” said.

Many in the industry realize that it will be a long time before theaters are back to their old selves, employing thousands of freelancers. Some job losses are only just emerging. In April, The Stage, Britain’s theater newspaper, reported that “The Phantom of the Opera” would reopen July 27 but only with its touring orchestration, cutting the number of musicians almost in half, to 14, from 27.

“It sets a bad precedent for the whole sector,” Dan West, a trombonist who played in the show before the pandemic, said in a telephone interview. “Every small producer will say, ‘If they don’t need brass, I don’t,’” he added.

During “The Mousetrap” on Monday, any worries seemed far from people’s minds. Many audience members took off their masks to sip drinks during the show, then left them off as the tension ramped up onstage, with Detective Sergeant Trotter (Paul Hilliar) quizzing eight potential murderers.

Eventually, the perpetrator was revealed, and several audience members gasped. “See, I told you!” one shouted, being shushed by those around him.

“The Mousetrap” ended just had it had for every one of its previous 28,199 performances. “Thank you so much for your unbelievably warm reception this evening,” Hilliar said, after a standing ovation from the half-full theater.

“Now, you are our partners in crime,” he added, “and we ask you to keep the secret of whodunit locked in your hearts.”



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