Londoners are desperate to return to the theatre, if 2020’s first fully-staged, indoor Yuletide play is anything to go by. A Christmas Carol at the Bridge theatre, starring Simon Russell Beale, inaugurated a spate of openings over the coming fortnight, with a matinee and evening performance the day after lockdown ended. The entire socially-distanced audience of about 300 turned up for the afternoon show eager, early, and apparently all at once.
“This is the first thing we have done since February,” said Susan Finn, a former teacher and school inspector. “We have paid to watch some shows online, which has been wonderful, but it’s not quite the same.” Her partner Martin Pounce added: “It was Susan’s birthday in November, so I chose the first thing we could come to.”
Many attending were regular theatregoers starved of live performance under lockdown. The programme of monologues by Alan Bennett, David Hare and others that the Bridge put on, as one of the few theatres to reopen during the loosening of restrictions, was a lifeline. All those I spoke to trusted the safety precautions theatres had put in place.
To see London’s playhouses largely closed for eight months “has been heartbreaking, so it is joyous to be here tonight”, said Kate Vann, there with her husband Martin. “Simon Russell Beale is phenomenal and A Christmas Carol obviously lifts the spirits at Christmas, doesn’t it?”
Railway engineer Kamsh Chan, on the other hand, was being treated to his first ever theatre experience by PHD student Lelia Bridgeland-Stephens. “I’m 27 and I’ve never seen a play,” said Chan. “I’m very excited, We’ve been waiting since February.”
Inside, the staff seemed as thrilled as the punters. “We were all furloughed all the way through lockdown, which was really lucky, and I’m back for my first shift today,” said an actress who works at the Bridge’s bar. “It’s different because we have a much lower [audience] capacity and we are doing table and seat service instead of bar service, but it’s been pretty smooth. It’s really nice to be back.”
“It’s great to be open again,” echoed an usher. “People are so excited and it feels very festive as well.”
The adaptation of Dickens’s popular tale stars award-winning actress Patsy Ferran and newcomer Eben Figueiredo – who impressed opposite James McAvoy in Cyrano de Bergerac last December – alongside the dependably excellent Russell Beale, with the three actors playing all the parts.
Reviews of the show are embargoed until next week, but I can say that Bridge director Nicholas Hytner’s production has everything stage-starved Londoners could want. “The cast have amazing technical skills, irresistible personalities and real soul,” said Hynter. “Sometimes it was like working with a cast of 20 – exhilarating.”
Staging socially-distanced shows during the pandemic has not been profitable for the Bridge, the National, the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre or the Donmar. But staying open enabled the Bridge to keep most of its staff on, employ freelance creatives, and entertain the public. “It’s what we do,” Hytner said. “We all want to work, to create, to connect with audiences.” As the turnout at this first post-lockdown show proved, the feeling is mutual.
A Christmas Carol is at the Bridge Theatre until Jan 16, www.bridgetheatre.co.uk.