TThe London West End is full of ghost shows. The facades still advertise productions that were frozen on March 16 last year, when the government advised against going to the theater. Some of the shows would have ended a long time ago, like John Kani’s Kunene and the King, with Antony Sher, which was in limited series. One might reasonably have expected others, including Come from Away and Les Misérables, to survive a hiatus. Both plan to reopen.
But only one play was able to survive until the end of the quarantine: The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie, at the St Martin theater. The thriller opened in 1952 and endured the Cold War, IRA, al-Qaida and Islamic State terrorism to become the oldest spectacle in the world. Due to Covid, her 69 years are no longer continuous, but the show is set to resume, after a pandemic 15-month gap, on May 17: Britain’s most invincible hit leading back to work.
“It’s a symbol of the West End,” says Adam Spiegel, the play’s producer, seated in mask beside an open window in St Martin’s bar. “So it must be before the reopening of the theater. I don’t think there is another show or theater that can epitomize the challenge of the industry so much. However – rightly so alarming – there is suspense: “It won’t be confirmed until the 10th if we can open the 17th.” If that date is pushed back, surely it would be a terrible blow? “It would be a huge inconvenience – a real act of vandalism against the industry. In our opinion, May 17 cannot slip. “
Outside the theater, a table lists in gold paint the names of the actors who appeared in the show in March 2020, when it closed. This feature will be redesigned with a sliding panel that can be quickly changed, as this is a production in which every performer is also a liner. Spiegel employed two castes which will repeat and work completely separately, and appear in alternating series of three performances. If one actor were to test positive, the other cast – hired to be available and within reach of the theater in their spare time – will immediately take over for 10 days while the other group recovers. Quarantine rules would prevent the usual theater practice of an absent person from being replaced by a replacement.
“It doubles the costs,” says Spiegel, “but it’s the only way to do it.” Duplicate actors are only plausible for small-distribution shows, so the producer is hoping there will be new Covid guidelines, released before theaters reopen, that will allow the company to operate without losing an entire cast when someone has a positive or false positive test.
St Martin’s seating capacity is 550. Under social distancing, about half of the seats can be occupied, although the exact figure will depend on the configuration of reservations. “If you come alone, you use three seats. So ideally I would like people to come in groups of exactly six. Under the rule of six, that’s the magic number, but six is the least likely group of theatergoers, which gives a two-point average, something or the like.
Spiegel expects to see around 250 people an average night “which is financially unsustainable in the long run, but I think it’s worth doing for a short time.” The dispersed audience will watch an action that is also socially distant. The actors will be temperature controlled at the stage door, then remain masked until they are on stage. Blocking (positioning people on the board) will keep the characters at least three meters apart. The actors are proud to have struck their marks on stage, but if they don’t take part in this production, they could be arrested. “A kiss has been taken away,” says Derek Griffiths, who plays Major Metcalf in the resumption of production. “And a few hugs,” adds Paul Hilliar, played as Detective Sergeant Trotter.
These precautions are crucial because producers cannot insure shows against losses. Spiegel says no underwriter will insure against a show shutting down as a result of Covid cases among cast or crew, or a new government decision: “What we want is insurance , underwritten by the government, which means that producers and developers will be reimbursed for costs. to reopen if there is another lock. “
This request has so far been denied. “Because of this, some producers are not reopening,” says Spiegel, but he has decided to “take the risk myself without insurance” on both the Christie and his cover of the musical Hairspray at the London Coliseum, which rehearses for an Opening on June 21. This is the government’s target date for the first lifting of all restrictions.
Financial compensation is a huge problem in the attempt to make showbiz a comeback. “I was free to do that,” Griffiths says, “because I lost a movie.” After a five-decade career from Play School on TV to Driving Miss Daisy onstage, the 74-year-old was set to shoot a low-budget movie but, although the actor was double-vaccinated, “they couldn’t get enough of it. allow myself to make sure so I had to withdraw ”.
Hilliar is another vivid example of the danger many people face in a profession where most are freelancers so ineligible for leave. He was first picked as DS Trotter 14 months ago and was scheduled to perform from May of last year. “I’m at the start of my career,” he says, “and it’s the biggest job I’ve had. So there were several months of heartbreaking pain. He was rehired for a scheduled reopening last October which was prevented by the second lockdown. “So this is the third contract I have for The Mousetrap and I have never done the job yet. Financially, he says, “there was help from Adam and the team. But they weren’t getting any money, so they couldn’t fulfill the contract.
With a small audience, a full house will now be half full, but Griffiths says, “I don’t think that’s a problem. In my career, I have played in front of audiences who all came in the same taxi! And I knew the small audience was more of a group, pushing the show, than a large audience that could sit on their hands. “
Spiegel’s determination to bring The Mousetrap back seems appropriate as he’s always been a producer-driven phenomenon, says Laura Thompson, author of an insightful biography, Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life. “When people ask why the play is so popular,” she said, “I would probably answer, ‘Peter Saunders’.” After opening the show in 1952, the impresario “made The Mousetrap the subject of one of the smartest advertising campaigns. of the 20th century, as Agatha herself acknowledged. “Hell at the Savoy” was what she called the annual parties held to celebrate another year of the coin’s run. But she was very fond of Saunders and fully recognized that he was a genius in a particular field.
Thompson points to an irony in the extraordinary longevity of this Christie tale: “The mousetrap was never highly regarded by its agent.” He much preferred two other stage works, The Hollow and Witness for the Prosecution, written on either side of this snowy house mystery. “He actually expressed concern that The Mousetrap would damage his reputation on stage in the United States if it was produced there.”
Christie has been much more prolific as a novelist than as a playwright, but Thompson sees a connection: “Her books are very theatrical in themselves – very little description, a lot of dialogue with little interconnected fabric. It was the way his mind naturally worked. She had an instinctive theatrical sensibility.
The mousetrap is widely regarded as a tourist attraction, of which there will inevitably be less this summer, but Spiegel says, “That the mousetrap is a tourist destination is a bit of a myth. Our analysis of the data shows that a third of the audience is made up of foreign tourists, a third of domestic tourists and a third of Londoners. One of the bets the industry is taking is that – for the next 12 months – domestic tourism will take the place of international visitors. “
Griffiths is aware of other concerns. “I got a lot of calls from actors saying, ‘I’m not sure I can do more theater – it’s been so long.’ There is a huge tremor in the business. Hilliar, however, doesn’t expect audiences to be nervous: “Going to the theater during that brief time last year when they reopened, there was an astonishing cathartic response from the people from the theater who were back. I hope and believe it will happen again.