Friday, 4 September 2020

A (Socially Distant) Night At The Theatre

Last weekend, I went to the first gig I’ve been to since Friday 6th March this year. I wrote in my last post that “I am all but certain I won’t be going to a gig in the conventional sense for the rest of the year”. I wrote that before it was confirmed I was going to this socially distant test event, but I had requested tickets for it at that point. It was confirmed shortly after posting that I was on the list (if you’re not on the list, you’re not getting in etc…slightly niche reference). Even with that in mind, I wouldn’t call this a gig in the conventional sense. This gig as said was a socially distant, all seated test event at the Kings Theatre in Southsea, Portsmouth. From what I gathered, the staff had been trained in how to cope with events running under new socially distant guidelines, but with no crowd in. This event (and a comedy show the night before) were to test that training in practice before events resume.

How did it work? We were advised that the show started at 7pm, but we were asked to arrive 60 minutes before the start time. The ticket stated that late arrivals may not be permitted entry. We  (me and a friend) arrived just before 6pm at the door advised on the ticket (which was not a usual one for stalls entrance for the Kings, as far as I am aware anyway). While approaching the door, I walked past a member of staff who I heard say “twenty past six”. I wasn’t sure at the time if this was in reference to what time we would actually be entering or not - but I now know that it was. We loitered outside the door for the 20 minutes or so until it was time to go in. When going in, I put my face covering on and was given a temperature check (which incidentally, was the first time I’ve had that done). Having passed that, I went on to get my ticket checked, which was done contactlessly. It was then a case of following the one way system round to the seats - which in this case was circling the entire stalls before cutting up through the middle and to a set of seats, one being an aisle seat (there is a long standing joke between myself and Dave, who I was with, about my buying tickets and randomly being assigned aisle seats...and just how often it happens). 

When in the seat, a video package played, explaining the changes and how you go about ordering drinks. This was done three ways, at the bar (I’m still not sure which bar was open, as the main one wasn’t), via an app or via in-seat service from a member of staff. If it was either of the latter two options, the drinks would be delivered to your seat. I did this first by ordering from a member of staff, and the service was very quick - I ordered two cans of beer which were delivered in a paper bag along with two plastic cups. It all seemed very efficient. Dave ordered via the app and again, that was also equally as efficient. 

One note about seating, we were sat in the 3rd row, row E (my guess is that, normally, rows A and B are temporary seating as the front row was row C). Rows C and D on the right hand side were empty, and the row we were in had us at one end, a couple in the middle (think it was just the two of them) and a small group at the other end. This appeared to be replicated elsewhere in the theatre as well (aside from the front row on the other side which was almost full - one big group I assume). This was a surprise to me as I would have assumed the middle of rows wouldn’t be used because it would have meant if they needed to get out, social distancing would be thrown out the window (this did happen a couple of times). I don’t think any of the higher levels were open - I am not sure if there are plans to open them at the moment (I would assume yes for circles, maybe no for gallery).

The show itself was The Spoils, a local band that performed cover songs. It was to be divided into two 20-25 minute sets with an interval in the middle. The show itself started with an introduction by two of the people that run the Kings, welcoming us all to the show, discussing the changes, and announcing that the Kings would be the only theatre on the south coast to be holding a pantomime this Christmas - which is quite something! One of the people on stage (I have forgotten both of their names, sorry!) said in passing that there were 48 people in the crowd. This, if the case, was interesting. There were plenty of rows further back in the stalls not being used, and this was a test event - but I would guess crowd sizes of 150-200 in the stalls at most when shows start back. After the introduction, the (socially distant) band played the first half of their set and it was really good. I think I would have (within reason) enjoyed any live music on offer, but The Spoils genuinely were really good. The strangest thing for me initially was not being able to sing along (we weren’t expressly told not to, but it was almost an unspoken rule). The third song was 9-5 by Dolly Parton, which I won’t lie had me grinning under the mask. 

The interval was going to be an interesting time. The Kings (much like many theatres in the UK I am sure) has pretty small toilets. The crowd was pretty small, but I wondered how social distancing would be managed in the toilets. In short, it wasn’t. I followed the one-way system as advised, and ended up in the toilets on the other side of the stalls. The facilities I was in had 4 urinals, with the 2nd from the left being used (information I am sure you are desperate to know). This meant for me using the 4th from the left, or violating social distancing. I opted to use that one, but realised quickly this meant I was blocking the sink - to me, it would have made sense to have 1st and 3rd from the left open, and 2nd and 4th closed, which would mean some form of distancing would be adhered to without blocking the sink. Anyway, the person that was there before me stepped back and waited for me to get out the way, which I did after I had washed my hands. He said “I’m just waiting to wash my hands” - I had gathered that (although imagine if I was in his shoes, I probably would have said something similar to justify why I was still there). This did throw up a question of social etiquette in my mind - should I have stepped away from the urinals (and sink) and queue to use the sink I was just next to? This may have been better served if there was someone on each door (less of an issue in the ladies toilets I would assume where there are set cubicles. I washed my hands and made a quick exit back to my seat. 

There isn’t much more to add really. There were a couple of the issues mentioned earlier about people in the middle of the row needing to get in and out, which somewhat made the effort taken to socially distance almost void. The second half of the show was very good (same as the first). At the end of the show, we were asked to leave row by row, which made sense. And that was that - back out into the quiet Albert road, though I did note someone a bit worse for wear on the sobriety front did charge across the road after seeing a friend to give them a hug - booze and social distancing proving themselves to not always be compatible. 

Overall, I am glad I went, but it was a bit weird (I am sure that was inevitable really). I thought the staff at the Kings were brilliant, and the show was great. Hearing live music after so long without was just ace. My only concerns would be the social distancing issues for those in the middle of the rows, and the toilets. The main concern though is not about something that happened on the night, but more the financial viability of running shows with these restrictions in place. That show surely would have made a loss if it wasn’t a test event, and I assume more shows will be the same. I personally would not be comfortable if social distancing were to be done away with tomorrow, but accept that until it is, gigs and shows as we once knew them won’t be able to go back to normal. It is a difficult balance to strike, for sure.

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