I WISH it could be 2019 again. I got the last ticket. The place was packed. People to the right of me, people to the left. Noisy. Raucous. Nine hundred souls, all in the same room. The curtain goes up. Gillian Anderson. Red hair, red dress, red shoes. “Fasten your seatbelts,” she says to us. “It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

I have to say: that opening performance of All About Eve at the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End, with Anderson in the Betty Davis role, was one of the best nights in the theatre I’ve ever had and, as usual, it wasn’t just because of the show. It was because of the other stuff too: the friends I was with, the food, the beer, the crowd, the noise, the street, the lights, the everything. Then: coronavirus.

The theatres have done their best with it. There have been a few performances with “distanced” audiences, and there are plans for open-air performances too. Pitlochry Festival Theatre, for example, has just announced an outdoor season for the summer (and I look and think: ‘ah, but the rain’). I also remember the freezing night I spent at The Minack outdoor theatre in Cornwall: Atlantic winds. Cornish rain. I forget the show.

I know, in an attempt to fill the gap, there have been online performances, but whereas a real audience can boost your energy, a computer can sap it, so you end up feeling worse, not better. Before the pandemic, I was also a bit of a regular at the National Theatre’s productions beamed into cinemas (including Gillian Anderson, wonderful again in Streetcar Named Desire) and it worked because you still had the live production and you still had the audience. But watching actors on your laptop is not the same.

So what happens next? There’s talk of the innovation continuing and audience expectations changing, but underneath it all is a grim economic reality that you won’t see on the stage or read about in the programmes: most theatres and venues cannot survive on a much-reduced audience of around 20%. They need to be 60% full or in some cases 80% to make it work.

What this means is that many of the shows that will go ahead this summer will make a loss, which leaves most theatres with a dilemma: do they open up with reduced audiences to remind people they’re there (and make a loss)? Or do they stay shut and wait until they can open up again under the pre-virus conditions?

I know which one I’d like. I do not want to sit in a half-empty room with a mask on my face. I want people to the right of me, people to the left. I want it to be noisy and raucous. I want 900 souls, all in the same room, and ideally I want the curtain to go up and Gillian Anderson to say: “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

I think this is also the best plan for theatres. Not only is opening up early economically risky, there’s the danger of having to close down again if the virus spikes. Many thousands of performers, designers, and other theatre staff have lost their careers; hundreds of shows that were planned never happened. Better to return on a solid rather than shaky foundation; wait until later in the year when theatres can be normal and then open up completely. No masks, no sanitiser, no one-way systems, none of it.

We should be hopeful it can happen, with the vaccination programme rollicking ahead. The surveys show, sadly but understandably, that many people are cautious about going to the theatre again. But I wonder how we’ll feel when we’re back in there? Like many others, I’ve spent an awful lot of time on my own over the last year, but now I think back to 2019. I took that night-out in London for granted. Crowds spread viruses, but crowds are good for us too. They make us feel better. They make us feel happy. They remind us that we are not alone.

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