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The only West End show still standing
[NETHER WHITACRE, England] Last Tuesday, Morgan Philpott and Neal Foster of the Birmingham Stage Company were in the middle of rehearsing the latest "Horrible Histories" show: a highly successful family theatre series in Britain where the country's past is explained with the aid of fart jokes.
They had meant to be in a London studio, but coronavirus had caused a change of plan. They were now rehearsing the two-actor, multicharacter show in Foster's living room, watched over by a collection of china figurines and a family portrait.
The pair had spent much of the morning running through material added to the script to reflect life in the pandemic, such as a routine where Henry VIII's lusty efforts to attract a wife are thwarted by social distancing.
But then they got to a scene where Me Philpott, as that king, had to throw a doll over his shoulder. His first attempt was halfhearted, the doll landing gently on a sofa. His second was anything but: Mr Philpott threw the toy with such force, it smashed straight into a light fitting, sending glass over the carpet.
Mr Philpott swore loudly. "You don't get that in London," he said. Mr Foster told him not to worry. "I'm sure it'll be covered by my house insurance," he said.
"Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain," is, technically, the only West End show still standing after coronavirus, which closed all London's theatres in March. Next month, the show — they are all written by Mr Foster, and based on the children's books by Terry Deary — was meant to start a run at London's Apollo Theatre. It is still going ahead, Mr Foster said, except its run will now start July 4 in an altogether different location: the parking lot of Powderham Castle, a visitor attraction about 200 miles west of Britain's capital city.
It'll then travel to other parking lots across Britain and Northern Ireland playing to drive-in audiences, who'll stay in their cars. If anyone goes to the toilet, they will have to stay 2 meters (about 6 feet) away from others, as required by the British government's social distancing rules.
The change of location had forced Mr Foster into some rigorous cost-cutting, he said, starting by doing the rehearsals in his home among hundreds of costumes for his theatre company's other productions.
The fact the show was going ahead at all is one of the few bits of good news British theatre has had recently. Since March, newspapers have been filled with articles warning that theatres face financial ruin without government assistance because they can't make a profit until social distancing is removed.
"British theatre is on the brink of total collapse," wrote producer Sonia Friedman in The Daily Telegraph. "I know it sounds melodramatic," she added, "but it is a statement of fact." Several major theatres, including Shakespeare's Globe, have issued similar warnings, as have stars like director Sam Mendes.
On June 9, Oliver Dowden, Britain's culture secretary, told The Evening Standard newspaper that help was coming. "Of course I want to get the money flowing," he said. "I am not going to let anyone down." But that vague promise has not stopped the talk of crisis. Cameron Mackintosh, the theatre impresario behind shows like "Les Misérables," had started consulting staff about potential redundancies, a spokeswoman said.
Mr Foster said his show was not a sign the crisis in British theatre has been overplayed, just as the boom in drive-in movies or drive-in discos did not mean there wasn't a crisis in those areas of culture. "I don't think theatres will be open until at least next spring," he said. The simple reason to do the car park shows, he added, was "just to do something," to keep telling stories and bring in money to pay his staff and freelancers.
Mr Philpott, who had been hired just for this series of shows, agreed. His first thought after being offered the job was, he said: "‘Flippin' heck, I'm going to be able to pay my mortgage next month.'"
Some London theatres are trying to get plays restarted, but in much altered form. Beginning June 26, the Old Vic Theatre is streaming performances of "Lungs," starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith. The actors will perform in the empty theatre, but tickets are being sold as if it were a normal performance, with people asked to pay for a specific seat at prices of up to 65 pounds, about S$111.
And the popular immersive version of "The Great Gatsby" plans to reopen in London in October, but with 90 guests per show (down from 240), and without dancing a Charleston that requires strangers to touch.