It's a Mann's world: The curtain call

Olly Mann 23 September 2020

Olly Mann recounts the joys of a well-packed theatre and wonders when the show will go on

You’re reading this five weeks after I’m writing it, so forgive me if the news cycle has swung back to existential tragedy, but right now one of the stories doing the rounds is Sir Cameron Mackintosh’s decision to suspend performances of his blockbuster musicals until 2021—because they can’t turn a profit whilst maintaining social distancing.

This means that the final performance of Les Misérables in 2020—after an uninterrupted run of approximately 795 years—was on March 15. Which means, as it happens, that I caught it just before it closed. I went on March 13, with my mate Josh, after it had emerged, over dinner one night in a Korean restaurant, that he had never seen it.

"WHAT?!" I said, spitting kimchi everywhere (we weren’t wearing masks, it was March). "It’s a classic!"

Josh—who works for the civil service, watches Newsnight and thinks musicals are actively bad for you—replied sternly, "The Victor Hugo novel is a classic. I’ve read it. Isn’t the musical just a bit… naff?"

Now, I’ve never read the book, and have no intention to, but I’ve seen the musical loads, and I was not going to let this go.

"Naff?", I retorted. "Only if you think joy is naff! Only if you think emotion is naff! Only if you think The French Revolution is naff!" (It turns out the background to the story is actually the failed Paris Uprising of 1832, not the French Revolution 50 years earlier, but hey, you go to Les Mis for the wigs and the harpsichords, not for a history lesson, right?).

Anyway, Josh and I went to see the show, just as London was beginning to lock down. It felt risky, if I’m honest, taking our seats among 1,074 coughing tourists from every nation on Earth. But it certainly added a frisson to the melodrama on stage. As Valjean spluttered his final lines to Cosette’s ghost (spoiler!), I must admit, I empathised somewhat more intensely than in pre-Covid times. I glanced to see if a tear had, perhaps, moistened Josh’s face. It had not. But, still, during the obligatory standing ovation, he rose with the crowd. He’d thought the sung-through libretto was a bit silly, he told me in the bar afterwards. But the barricades had stirred him.

"It felt risky taking our seats among 1074 coughing tourists from every nation on earth"

I have not, of course, been to the theatre since. Which is significant, because theatre is my thing. Ever since my wife and I first negotiated a childcare rota, Thursday evenings have been theatre night (I go to the West End, my wife stays at home. She hates all theatre and finds it boring, so this works well. She gets to ride a horse on Mondays and Wednesdays). Sometimes I meet a friend (Sam for the contemporary drama, Ben for the jukebox musicals), sometimes I go with my mum (if I can get a box, so she can stretch her legs). Often, if I’m seeing something I know no-one else will come to (weird Russian circus; an off-West End revival of Aspects of Love), I just go by myself.

And I never regret it. Even if the production is a bit below par. Even if I’m a bit tired. Even if I haven’t had time to eat before and all I can find in the interval is a dodgy egg sandwich from the corner shop. Even then. Because theatre is my thing. For two-three hours, I switch off my phone, get involved in someone else’s story, and share an intimate experience with a roomful of strangers. It never fails to make me feel better. It’s like therapy.

So it’s a strange sensation to realise that, almost certainly, I will not be visiting a theatre again this year. Back in the spring, the productions I had tickets for offered me the opportunity to reschedule, so I rebooked them all for October, on the basis that surely by then this whole "virus thing" will be over. Now that doesn’t seem at all certain, and, even if those shows do re-open, I’m not convinced I would actually want to go. For the first time in my life, I might choose not to go to the theatre.

There are filmed productions, of course, available to stream on telly at home, but not only is this not really the same experience as watching the event live; for me it subverts the thing I love most about theatre, which is—however glitzy or epic the production—its temporality. Its smallness.

I’m a broadcaster, and if a radio show or podcast I was working on reached just 1,000 listeners, I’d be furious. It wouldn’t be worth making it. Yet, when I go to the theatre, an entire cast and crew of talented professional creatives work their socks off to entertain me and 1,000 or so others (often far fewer, in fringe venues). Then, after all their exertions, the communal experience evaporates—except in the memories of those who were there. That is what makes it special. That is what makes it feel like a treat.

Roll on 2021. Do you hear the people sing?

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