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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Leave Boris alone – baffling mask rules are stifling theatre’s comeback

Andrew Lloyd Webber has stated this week that low levels of mask-wearing in theatres poses a problem and that he’d like to introduce compulsory face-masks at his six West End venues. Is there a reluctance among many to return to the theatres because of health concerns? Panto this year has been dented by diminished bookings – according to the Audience Agency, monitoring sales in over 340 English venues, the number of tickets bought in the last week of October was 473,807 compared to 715,210 in the same week in 2019 – a drop of 34 per cent.

But for every person put off attending the theatre because of mask-wearing being an unreliable element of the experience, there must be those who are buying tickets on the basis that they won’t be nannied to cover up, and hate the idea of being smothered for hours on end.

Though it will win me no favours from inveterate Boris bashers, perhaps the PM’s unplanned photo op sends out a necessary message under the circumstances. This was the guy who on March 16, 2020, abruptly brought the curtain down by advising people not to go to theatres. Now, amid legion other calls on his time, he has plumped for an intimate venue and a kill-for-a-ticket show. 

It’s a declaration of commitment to the live arts in London – which, thanks to the Culture Recovery Fund, are in a good position to bounce back to pre-pandemic levels. In a more fundamental way, it’s the application of Johnson’s star-quality (no, really) to an activity that’s crucial to our ‘spiritual’ health.  Yes, he has once again got people arguing and complaining. But just as importantly, he may have reached people who’d assumed theatre was out of bounds and persuaded them that it’s time to venture in.

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