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Back at the Theatre

Throughout Lockdown, I’ve been occasionally checking the Malvern Theatres website to see how they were getting on. It’s mostly been a long and sorry catalogue of shows cancelled or postponed. I could see that the cinema had re-opened a number of weeks ago, but it wasn’t showing anything I was interested in seeing. When I clicked on the site this week, however, I was very pleased to see that they actually had live theatre on, for the first time since March. And, even better, there was a Saturday matinée performance planned. I‘d never heard of the play, Mooney and his Caravans, but I want to support the theatre, so I decided I’d treat myself to a ticket, and see what the experience was like.

The “new normal”, Covid-secure way of going to the theatre is going to take a bit of getting used to. In order to ensure social distancing, the theatre seating has been split into well-spaced “bubbles” of between one and four seats. You have to book all the seats in a bubble, and there are no paper tickets anymore – just e-tickets that you can either print at home or show on your mobile. You have to pre-book, there’s no on-the-day or standby tickets. There’s no programmes, nor any ice-cream in the interval (in fact, there wasn’t even an interval) and of course the audience have to wear masks. At today’s matinée, the entire audience in the stalls numbered in the very low twenties, and there would have been even fewer than that upstairs in the Circle. Clearly, that’s not going to be a sustainable business model in the long term. Nor probably even in the medium term.

The play is apparently an old Repertory Company standby. Big, touring productions with famous (i.e. expensive) actors are quite clearly off the agenda for the foreseeable future, but a lower-cost Repertory model with a limited cast (this was a two-hander) is much more affordable. The actors were both former members of the Malvern Youth Theatre, who have recently turned professional – and were presumably back home in Malvern. The play was directed by the Theatre’s Chief Executive, so keeping it all in-house.

The performance itself wasn’t socially-distanced. The two actors were not wearing masks, and occasionally actually touched each other. The fact that is comment-worthy in itself says something about how strange things are at the moment! The play was about a young working-class couple, recently married, who want to better themselves by moving out of Selly Oak to the Cotswolds countryside. They move into a static caravan on a caravan park, but are ruthlessly bullied and exploited by the owner. It’s not an uplifting play, by any means, but I suppose that is very suited to our current times.

I was very pleased that the theatre had reopened, and hope that they will be able to survive this enforced “new normal” and come out the other side able to put on the big London-bound shows once again. But if there is a period of smaller, Repertory-style productions first, while the arts sector painfully rebuilds, then so be it. Today’s performance was well acted, thought provoking and interesting – and the ticket price was much more affordable than before Lockdown. And I felt very safe – the Theatre Management is clearly taking thoughtful and serious anti-virus measures, even though it must be crippling them economically.