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Theatre's absence is damaging Britain's mental health

Wednesday, 14 October 2020

It’s seven months tomorrow since I shut my last show - and most theatres are still completely dark. It’s the longest prolonged closure since Pepys’ day. Theatre has endured war, riots, depression and, yes, even disease. Its absence is damaging this country and doing harm to the mental health of its people, and I’m determined to do anything I can to help bring it back.

Exactly two years ago, David Walliams took me to see a brilliant young double act called The Pin at the Soho Theatre. Watching their hilarious sketch show that night, I cried with laughter. And I wasn’t alone. The whole audience lost it.

It’s strange to think back on that evening now. I’m not sure I’ve laughed like that in months. You rarely do while watching TV or surfing YouTube on your phone, do you? Not in that same sustained and unstoppable way. For that, a joke has to be shared. People have to set each other off. ‘I wasn’t alone’ – that’s the key. There’s something about live comedy – live anything – that you can’t recreate at home. There’s a kind of alchemy to it. Everything’s enlivened.

Right now, we need that – maybe more than ever. This year has taken a huge toll on us all: mentally, physically and spiritually. After a long lockdown, we need the opportunity to let go. We’re craving connection and spontaneity. Live theatre – performance – offers that release, and it has done for thousands of years. It lets an audience feed off each other’s emotions, whether laughter or tears, and share in a silence. It’s why Oscar Wilde saw it “as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” As social, emotional animals, we need that. Theatre’s vital to our collective well-being and mental health, and the overwhelmingly positive public response to the Palladium Panto and the Les Miserables concert announcement is testament to that.

Now, thankfully, theatre’s making a tentative return – albeit in a limited, socially distanced form. The financial constraints of producing socially-distanced theatre are seriously prohibitive and there’s no way our industry can survive like this long-term, but for now, so long as we are allowed, it’s incumbent on us to get our shows back on our stages somehow. It’s a big financial risk, but it’s one we have to take wherever we can follow the health and safety guidelines signed off by the appropriate authorities. Socially distanced theatre will never work financially, but it is vital – in every sense.

That’s why, this December, I’m producing The Pin’s debut play The Comeback in the West End. It’s a dizzying and delirious new comedy that tells the story of two double acts fighting to wrestle control of the most chaotic, farcical and high-stakes gig of their respective careers. It feels like the right show for right now. Some people say farce encapsulates the human condition: people clinging desperately to dignity as their world spins out of control. Others just see door slams and slapstick. Either way: bring it on. Following all of the government-approved Performing Arts working guidelines to prioritise the health and safety of our audiences and company, I hope The Comeback gives theatregoers of all ages the great night out they deserve after this year.

It’s taken a lot to get here, but I have been determined to get back to work. Audiences need a chance to escape. Freelancers, many of whom have gone without financial assistance, need opportunities to return to work. From March to May, I was in shock and survival mode. Having shuttered 18 productions worldwide in two weeks, and paused another 10 in the pipeline, I tried to stay sane by focusing on the other side. We all thought – hoped – we’d be back by this autumn, naïve as that now seems, but as the scale of the shutdown became clear, I coped by developing and creating… producing. I wasn’t alone. The commitment to creating new ways of sharing, streaming and restarting performance has been as inspiring to me as the shutdown itself has been depressing. It speaks to the necessity of theatre and live performance – how humans simply can’t do without it.

Seven months on, we urgently need to address our long-term future. At present, the full reopening of our theatres still seems some way off and many shows are still stuck in limbo. The vital Cultural Recovery Fund tides venues, organisations and companies over until spring, but what then? We still need a fixed timeline to work towards – if only just a ‘not before’ date, and we need an insurance scheme to underwrite interruptions as already granted to television and film. That’s a gamechanger.

Make no mistake: the current situation of social distancing shows in the commercial sector is only a stop-gap. It is not sustainable long-term. We cannot carry on with small-scale, concert style productions in theatres for more than a few weeks. To bring our productions back in full, to reopen the theatre economy and its eco-system, we have to restore the full spectrum performance can offer – intimate, off-beat encounters, and all-singing-all-dancing spectaculars, large scale Shakespeare productions, inclusive community shows and exquisite operatics.

The Chancellor’s statement on the ‘unviability’ of theatre is not just a neat sidestep. It’s an admission of defeat. It presents theatre’s current temporary fix as its only possible future. The truth is he can no more afford that than we can, and actually I have huge faith that Oliver Dowden and the government do understand the gigantic impact UK theatre has on our nation’s economic and, crucially, social and mental health. They know theatre’s more than viable. It’s one of this country’s greatest economic assets: a significant generator of VAT, a cultural force exported around the world and the number two reason tourists visit the UK. Without theatre’s full return, the hit to the economy is estimated at between £6.6bn and £9.3bn a year. The annual loss of VAT alone would be up to £1bn.

But this is no longer simply a fiscal issue. It is a national one: a question of public health and well-being. Remember the Mental Health Foundation’s assertion that arts and culture can play a part in solving social issues such as aging and loneliness; that it “alleviates anxiety, depression and stress.” In the wake of all this, we are more important than ever. We have to be part of the national recovery. And that recovery starts now.

Medicine saves lives, but culture makes life worth living. Ask Matt Hancock: “What the NHS does is life-saving. But what the arts and social activities do is life-enhancing,” the Health Secretary said back in 2018. “We should value the arts and social activities because they’re essential to our health and wellbeing. It’s scientifically proven. Access to the arts and social activities improves people’s mental and physical health.”

That ‘and’ is key – arts and social activities. Digital approximations alone aren’t enough. Art in isolation isn’t enough. We need to share experiences in communal spaces. We need to feed off each other’s emotions, to sit in rapt silence with nothing to break the spell, to laugh that much harder because we’re laughing together. That’s one of the things I’m most looking forward to with The Comeback this December. Theatre’s return can’t come soon enough.

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