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  • IntroductionThere's No Place Like London: Theatrical Landscapes of a City in Recovery
  • Harry Derbyshire (bio), Nicholas Holden (bio), and Mark O'Thomas (bio)

At approximately 5:30pm (GMT) on Monday March 16, 2020, the West End and theatres across London as well as the rest of England were brought to an abrupt halt. The public was instructed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to "avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other such social venues," thus plunging the country's arts and hospitality sectors into an acute and unexpected state of paralysis.1 That evening, as commuters and tourists boarded buses, trains, and planes to make their journeys home, few could have predicted the sustained and brutal impact that the global pandemic caused by COVID-19 would have on these industries, and public life generally, in the months and years to come.

Not since the Second World War had London's theatres suffered such unrelenting and grave difficulties. Indeed, even during the height of the [End Page 1] Blitz, the West End had remained open—albeit severely depleted—in an attempt to bring "some sense of normality" and "maintain general morale" for the public.2 In the early stages of the pandemic, the severity of which had not been seen for over a century, London's theatres were in complete blackout, with little sign of recovery. Theatregoers, whether Londoners or visitors, were left without the source of live entertainment that the country's capital had been famously supplying for hundreds of years.

What separates the impact of COVID-19 from previous global conflicts and pandemics, however, is the advent of various technologies in the twenty-first century that have come to provide a social lifeline to the world's population. As stay-at-home orders, such as England's "Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives," forced much of the world into lockdown and physical isolation, people turned to internet platforms and apps such as Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, and Microsoft Teams as a means of maintaining contact with friends, families and colleagues. During those first weeks, quizzes and other traditional games were imaginatively reconceived for an online context to provide entertainment and a sense of social contact to a population confined to their homes.

As has often been the case throughout history, the theatre industry in Britain responded quickly and imaginatively to the urgent issues and demands of the contemporary world. With theatres closed and production on film and television halted, the two industries worked together in new creative ways that were reflective of and informed by the isolation that had been enforced upon many during this time. At first, production companies found themselves sending cameras, recording devices, and other production equipment into the homes of creative teams. The results included Isolation Stories (ITV), with four episodes aired from May 4-7, and Unprecedented (BBC4), a short series of 14 dramas presented over four nights at the end of May 2020. Unprecedented was commissioned in the immediate aftermath of theatre closures and showcased new work by playwrights including James Graham, April De Angelis, and Duncan MacMillan for the BBC. The series was subtitled "Real Time Theatre From a State of Isolation" and, as described by BBC executive Stephen James Yeoman, offered "an intimate response to the radical way our world changed when lockdown was announced [in England] on 23 March [End Page 2] 2020."3 This was followed in June by further original work in the form of Staged (BBC), a series of short comic episodes starring David Tennant and Michael Sheen that was filmed almost entirely using video-conferencing technology. The same month saw the broadcast of a revival of Talking Heads (BBC), written by veteran playwright Alan Bennett and starring theatrical luminaries including Lesley Manville and Harriet Walter. The series, which had been rehearsed on Zoom and filmed using a skeleton crew on location at London's Elstree Studios, allowed for a continued sense of connection between the British theatre and its loyal audience during the initial lockdown period.

The rapid restrictions placed on the theatre industry and the considerable impact of this uncertainty on its workers meant that many were left unsupported, financially and otherwise, in the early...


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