Andrew Lloyd Webber called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to set a date for the wider return of theatre as the London Palladium hosted a pilot performance featuring Beverley Knight.
The singer performed a live show in front of a sold-out, socially-distanced audience – one of a number of events to gauge the viability of live entertainment amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Audience members were given an assigned arrival time and spread sparsely across the auditorium, with some rows left completely empty.
Before entering the building in London’s Soho, attendees were asked to don face coverings, fill in track and trace forms and sanitise their hands.
Lloyd Webber introduced the matinee performance, saying: “I have to say this is a rather sad sight. I’m so grateful to you all for coming and being a sort of guinea pig like this.
“But the Palladium is meant to be full, it’s a theatre that wants to love you, and it seems sad.
“I think this will amply prove why social distancing in theatre doesn’t work.
“It’s a misery for the performers I know and thank you Beverley for being so brave as to do this.”
On my way to the @LondonPalladium to make some HISTORY!— Beverley Knight (@Beverleyknight) July 23, 2020
A pilot gig to show live performances can work despite Covid19. Thank you @lwtheatres.
If today is deemed successful by Public Health England and the government, then live performance is BACK!🎤🔥🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/qN5n2Rlyg8
He said the venue had adopted measures pioneered in South Korea and used fogging machines effective on the virus for up to four weeks.
Lloyd Webber praised Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden for “trying to do his best” during this “difficult time” but called on the Government to set a date for theatre’s return.
He said: “We must, must get the regional theatres open so I would say one thing to Boris, and just say: ‘Give us a date mate’.”
Taking to the stage in a sparkling bodysuit, Knight urged the audience to stand, dance and clap to her songs, which included Memory from Cats and Piece Of My Heart.
The singer, who has starred in a number of West End musicals, reminded attendees that they were not supposed to sing along.
Government guidance has designated singing, as well as playing wind and brass instruments, as “higher risk” activities.
Describing the performance as “history in the making”, Knight added: “This goes out to Public Health England. Help us to keep the fires of our industry burning.”
Speaking after the performance, Rebecca Kane Burton, chief executive of LW Theatres – the venue’s owner – said it was a “relief” to reopen the doors.
She added: “I want to get this place back open, no social distancing.
“And hopefully today has demonstrated that we run a tight ship, we know how to manage things, we have the right mitigations in place, and people just need this back in their lives.
“Beverley needs it, the freelancers need it, the 290,000 in our industry – they need to get back into work. We are not a risk. We know how to do things properly. I’m excited.”
She added: “Hopefully today is the first step in showing the world, Public Health England, DCMS, whoever needs to see the evidence, we manage a tight ship.”
Last week, Mr Johnson announced that live indoor theatre and concerts would be able to resume with socially-distanced audiences from August 1 – subject to the success of pilots.
Theatres will be able to open with reduced venue capacity and limited ticket sales to ensure social distancing, while tickets will be purchased online and venues encouraged to use e-tickets to reduce contact and help with track and trace.
There will also be increased deep cleaning of auditoriums, and performances will be scheduled to allow sufficient time for cleaning before the next audience arrives.
The London Symphony Orchestra at St Luke’s in London is also among the arts venues piloting new arrangements.