Andrew Lloyd Webber has opened the London Palladium for a test pilot event to see how audiences and workers can be welcomed back to theatre, with the impresario highlighting that people are safer in the venue than they would be on Oxford Street.
Taking to the stage to rapturous applause ahead of a performance by Beverley Knight, he explained why he was holding the event.
"Theatre is my life and the one thing I really feel I can do is give something back to the profession that has been so good to me," he said.
He revealed to audiences, at the socially distanced event, the measures that had been taken to improve safety at the venue during the pandemic.
As well as visually obvious measures such as audiences having their temperatures taken at the door and specially adapted anti-viral doorhandles, he said the the theatre had been ‘fogged’ prior to audiences coming in.
The measures, he said, were based on ones used in South Korea, where a production of The Phantom of the Opera has been able to reopen to full audiences without social distancing.
“We brought in these measures from Korea – and we were very lucky that when lockdown started here, The Phantom of the Opera in Seoul reopened. They were very much ahead with all the measures and we were able to adopt all of the measures Korea had. One of them is that this theatre was fogged yesterday and the chemical that it is fogged with is effective against the virus for four weeks, but we would do it every fortnight,” he said.
He added: “Another thing that is extremely important is the quality of air in buildings and here in the Palladium, and all my theatres, I think air quality is vitally important, as it helps the audience experience, and apart from anything else nobody wants to be stuffy. The air here is sucked in from above the building and is then filtered and expelled through the building in a better state than when it came in, so you are safer in here than you are on Oxford Street.”
The pilot event welcomed approximately 640 people, compared with the 2,297 people when full. This meant it had less than 30% capacity.
The front row of seats was empty to allow for adequate distance between the performer and first audience members, providing a gap of 5 metres between Knight and row B.
Every other row of seats was marked as unavailable, and used instead as “thoroughfares” to allow audiences to follow a one-way system in the venue. Audience members were seated with space between them and the next people attending.
Lloyd Webber told the audience he wanted to see social distancing removed.
“The Palladium is meant to be full. It’s a theatre that wants to love you. I think this [event] will amply proof that social distancing in theatre doesn’t work. It’s a misery for the performers, I know,” he said, adding: “If this was a comedy, one of the things you like to hear is other people laugh and if you’re miles apart its no good. But, it’s a start.”
He continued: “I know it’s a sad sight, but one thing I would like to say is that culture secretary Oliver Dowden is really trying to do his best for all of us. I know it’s a difficult time and he’s had an awful lot of other things on his plate as well. I think what he is trying to negotiate for the arts is great. Although we would love to know what that [rescue] package means at some point, that would be quite helpful.”
At the event, attended by government officials and members of Public Health England, he reiterated his urgent plea on the government to provide a date for when theatres can open fully.
“My plea to Boris Johnson is ‘Give us a date, mate’," he said.