How theatres are starting to put on live shows again

If you’re going to stage a musical under social distancing rules, one famous for its titular character killing people in a manner that is up-close and personal, would not be most people’s first choice.

By Chris Broom
Saturday, 5th September 2020, 6:00 am
Dress rehearsal for Sweeney Todd by Titchfield Festival Theatre, September 2020.
Dress rehearsal for Sweeney Todd by Titchfield Festival Theatre, September 2020.

But that is the challenge the Titchfield Festival Theatre company has set itself as they prepare to stage Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

While the company was one of the first to embrace outdoor performances when allowed, this will be their first production back in their main theatre in St Margaret’s Lane since March. They have also just finished nine days of Macbeth in their smaller Barn space.

TFT’s artistic director Kevin Fraser says: ‘It was reasonably easy to put the shows together because all throughout lockdown from day one, really, our people had been rehearsing on Zoom. And as it progressed one or two people who were in bubbles together would go in and do bits together, and as the rules changed we got more people into the rehearsal space.

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Dress rehearsal for Sweeney Todd by Titchfield Festival Theatre, September 2020.

‘We cancelled about six shows, but the others we kept on the boil all the time and we were making sure everyone knew what was going on.

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‘We’re quite a close-knit company anyway, and we tend to keep in touch, but we did things to keep everyone going – people were doing things on their phones and sharing that out to members, and so on, so it was never like we stopped.’

And of course it’s not just the crew who have had to adapt to new ways – the audience will be greeted by a thermal camera checking body temperatures, hand sanitisers and socially distanced seating. They also splashed out on an ozone generator, more commonly used in hospitals.

The Kings Theatre, Southsea, with signage put in place to comply with Covid-19 rules

Kevin adds: ‘All of our team have been extremely busy putting in place the necessary arrangements to ensure safe distancing throughout the building, including sanitising the theatre thoroughly after each performance.

‘However, it is not just the backstage team that has had to think creatively in this new world we live in. The directors, producers and cast have worked hard too, constantly thinking about how to change the fight scenes for example, and the interaction between the actors to ensure that there is safe distancing at all times.

‘We’ve been really careful about that, and of course there’s no cutting of the razor – we’ve come up with some really inventive ways to show there’s been a murder, the directors have been brilliant. I’m not going to tell you too much about what they’ve come up with because I want you to watch it.

‘Of course, Sweeney Todd is a particularly sinister and gruesome tale set in the dark streets of Victorian London, so we have had to find unique ways of disposing of all the bodies!’

Chichester Festival Theatre's Concert in the Park, September 1, 2020. Photo by Richard Gibbons

While it’s been tough, Kevin feels they’re on the right track.

‘People have been up on their feet cheering, they’re just desperate to get back. They’re so relieved to be back out there and seeing live theatre again, there’s a huge pent up demand for it. We’re glad we’ve done it and we’re going from strength to strength, and our numbers are coming back up so we’ll carry on doing what we do.’

Sweeney Todd runs from September 9 to 19. For more information go to

They’re not the only venue to make tentative steps indoors, The Spring Arts Centre in Havant put on its first show last week.

Beechwood Opera do a Zoom rehearsal for their A Little Light Music Show at Westbourne, September 2020. Picture by Elise Fairley

And The Kings Theatre in Southsea has also welcomed its first visitors since March – albeit in a low-key manner.

Last weekend they held a pair of test events in front of an invited audience, one stand-up comedy with James Alderson, and the following night was a gig by band The Spoils.

This followed training for staff, as well as the many other new conditions and protocols to put in place – deep cleaning, one-way routes, entrance to the theatre by one of six doors, buying drinks by app from your phone, temperature checks on the way in.

The Kings’ chief executive Paul Woolf says: ‘We had the two test events with two different audiences, so they behaved completely differently which is what we wanted.

‘When we started the staff training, I thought there was so much information, it’s going to be a real challenge. We did lots of walk-rounds to make sure. But I’ve got to say, when we ran the first test event it all went like a dream and everyone was fantastic. All the systems worked.

‘The next night, because it was a gig, you had people turning up late, and on the first night no-one had been late. We’ve got a new late-comers' policy, so that was good as it gave us the chance to test that.

‘Yesterday we had a wash-up of what went well, and what didn’t – there weren’t any glitches just a couple of things we could tweak, like moving someone from here to here, putting a sign up here permanently instead of having someone stand there.

‘We’re supremely confident that everything we’ve done creates a safe environment for everyone to come to the theatre.’

‘We need to reinforce that it’s safe and please trust us that it’s safe.’

This weekend, the theatre is holding its first paying event, a live Q&A with stage and screen star Bonnie Langford before a screening of 42nd Street, filmed at Drury Lane.

‘It’s already sold out and we’re expecting 200 people,’ Paul adds. ‘If the conditions remain the same we’re planning to grow that to 400 by the time of our panto.

‘Our staff are safe and competent, our systems are safe, we’re confident we can have the people back and look after them and give them a nice show and a good night out.’

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As theatres reopen, outdoor shows are still happening too

While others are moving inside, there are still outdoor shows taking place.

On bank holiday Monday, Chichester Festival Theatre hosted its first events since March, with a morning family show starring Hugh Bonneville reading childrens’ stories, and an evening concert compered by Omiod Djalili, to audiences of 950 and 1,000 respectively.

And Beechwood Opera is putting on its sold out A Little Light Music concert at Our Back Garden at Mill Meadows Farm, Westbourne.

The company last performed in 2018, putting things on hold while Beechwood co-founder and singer Elise Fairley completed her studies.

Elise says: ‘We had things in the pipeline, lots of plans for this summer, but they all went kaput.

‘It was five or six weeks ago when they said you can do outdoor shows again, so we said let’s throw something together.’

They found the venue through family connections and from there it all came together relatively easily.

’Im a local girl, I’m from Hilsea, and went to South Downs College, my friend Harry was a pianist on the Phantom [of The Opera] tour, so I asked him and said, great, let’s do it. We’ve got three singers, piano, violin and cello, and the musicians are all from the Phantom tour.

‘We sold out the first concert in five days.

‘We’ve had a few Zoom rehearsals to chat through it. It’s just been really nice to do.’

The show came out of a sense of frustration common to many in the arts world right now.

‘It’s not fun when you’re sat at home, it’s still not looking great, but it was looking so grim for such a long time – what’s going to happen? Is it going to be permanent?

‘It got to the point where we thought, well, we’ve got to take it into our own hands, if the work’s not coming from other people, then we need to make it for ourselves.’

The show will feature a whole host of crowd-pleasers, ‘Nessun Dorma, a bit of West Side Story, Les Mis, all those things,’ and they’re hoping to take it around to other venues – they already have a date lined up in Hungerford later this month.

‘What’s nice is where we’re a small local company, you worry that you’ll only be playing to your family, but actually we’ve been really pleased that when the bookings are coming in they’re not names we know!

‘Next year we would like to go back into full production, so this will put some money in the pot for that as well. We don’t know what’s going to happen, so we want to be as self sufficient as possible.’

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