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6th August 2020

Socially distanced theatre: Beverley Knight keeps the fire burning

Olivia Castagnetti reviews Andrew Lloyd Webber and Beverley Knight’s socially distanced pilot performance at the London Palladium
Socially distanced theatre: Beverley Knight keeps the fire burning
Photo: Olivia Castagnetti @ The Mancunion.

On 23rd July 2020, a glimpse of hope for the UK theatre industry finally emerged, after months of uncertainty and loss.

Thanks to The Theatre Café, I was lucky enough to be invited to be a ‘guinea pig’ for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s pilot performance at the London Palladium. Essentially a ‘concert’ , it featured none other than recording artist and musical theatre actress Beverley Knight MBE.

Photo: Beverley Knight MBE by Olivia Catagnetti @ The Mancunion.

An informative email,  sent out mere days before the event, documented the measures that would be in place for the performance. It was strongly advised that we should measure our temperature before leaving, and if it was higher than 38 degrees, remain at home.

The venue used a staggered entrance system with helpful 15-minute allotted time-slots. At 1pm, A front of house staffer informed us that tickets for the Stalls and Royal Circle would queue on one side, and Grand Circle tickets would be on the other.

Whilst queuing, the staff provided compulsory masks, as well as a QR code to scan, in order to fill out a form with information for NHS Track and Trace. Once completed, we  sanitised our hands and proceeded through a contactless bag check.

Each individual audience-member stood on footprints as our temperature was checked using a system, which was smart and comforting.

We then followed a very strict one-way system to our seats, passing numerous hand-sanitising stations, as well as the bar, which was behind Perspex screens.

Once in the auditorium, it became very apparent how many empty seats there were going to be. In the Upper and Lower Circles, the first two rows of seats were completely blocked off, and in the Stalls, every other row was left empty. An apparent zig zag pattern meant that seats directly in front of people were vacant, and every group had at least two seats free on either side of them.

I recently watched an IGTV video from Beverley Knight, which revealed that the backstage procedure was as thorough as the Front of House track and trace. All crew had to have a COVID-19 test prior to the performance, go through a temperature check on arrival, and people backstage and front of house were not permitted to mix.

Now the performance – it began with a speech by The Right Honourable Andrew Lloyd Webber. He commented that it was a sad sight to see the venue, with a capacity of just over 2,200 people, down to a mere 650, indicating that the Palladium is a venue that is meant to be full.

Photo: Andrew Lloyd Webber by Yvonne Walker.

Having visited the Palladium multiple times, most recently for their Christmas Pantomime of Goldilocks and the Three Bears in December 2019, I could not agree with this statement more.

Then came the moment we had all been anticipating: Beverley Knight took to the stage and began her performance. The audience was tentative at first not knowing what we could and could not do in this new normal for theatre, but once encouraged by Beverley, we were up on our feet and dancing to her songs. She did a range of originals and covers in her set, and a few songs stood out more than others.

After a 30-minute interval, in which staff came along with drinks menus in order to operate a contactless bar service, she came back with a bang and did an amazing cover of The Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction. However, her rendition of Memory, from the Lloyd Webber musical Cats, in which she had previously played the role of Grizabella on the Palladium stage, will be a moment I will not forget any time soon.

If there was any doubt about how the concert was going, it was dispelled at that moment when the audience erupted into a standing ovation, almost moving Beverley to tears. She finished off her set with an a cappella cover of Bill Withers’ Stand by Me, which has been a moving song for the industry, especially Black artists, during this time of uncertainty.

Her performance was extremely memorable, proving that she can hold an audience no matter how big or small.

This pilot performance gives me confidence that the social distancing measures, both before and after the show, are successful and can, therefore, be adapted by theatres across the UK.

However, we must take into consideration the atmosphere of theatre and financial concerns. Theatres might struggle to work with social distancing measures, and the theatre does not have nearly the same feel as a fully packed audience. Most worryingly, most shows need an audience capacity of 70% to break even, so socially distanced theatre might not be feasible.

One thing is for sure, though… the show must go on!

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