In the topsy-turvy world that the Covid-19 crisis has inflicted on the performing arts, you can now open a theatre to the public but not mount a live show. Conversely you can present a (socially distanced) show, without an audience. The latter option has been seized on by the Oxford Playhouse in a spirit of ironical jest and fund-raising zest.
On Wednesday evening, it streamed – live! – a ticketed gala event, via YouTube, that flung open the doors to a motley crew of entertainers and technical support (with “headliner” Stephen Fry beaming in a sage contribution from the confines of his study, like a pop-up Prospero). Audience-members, though, were there none – the camera roved slowly, lovingly, sadly across rows of multi-coloured seating to make the obvious but stirring point that a theatre without theatre-goers is a shadow of itself. So far as the artists are concerned, mid-performance an audience may only register as a titter, a cough, a shared guffaw or round of applause in the dark, but it is finally what makes things tick. What it brings in isn’t just revenue, it’s raison d’être.
The former stomping ground of all kinds of luminaries – from Maggie Smith to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor – the Playhouse, in common with most other theatres, is facing huge challenges to survive, bolstered though it has been by a dollop from the Arts Council’s emergency pot, hope restored too by the Chancellor’s rescue package. Whingeing was not the order of the evening, though – this was, aside from thanks for that long-in-coming support, a cheery celebration of the art-form, a reminder of what we’ve missed.
Given the one-way nature of proceedings, Marcus Brigstocke did a sterling job as the emcee, directing solitary bonhomie (albeit with smiling assistance from the keyboardist) into the void. Although his spiel risked sounding like a cross between an audition turn and an acceptance speech on behalf of the industry (he even thanked the poor sods who handled his sweaty costumes after his nightly, mainly failed bids to tight-rope walk during the recent London run of Barnum), the gag-rate was high, the geniality unforced. “I’ve completed Netflix, they’ve sent a certificate and everything,” he grinned, as relieved as a toddler let back into a playground to be romping in his natural milieu.
Also on hand, proffering similar Covid-y topicality, was his wife, the comedian Rachel Parris, crooning a ditty enumerating all the locales (much less agreeable than a good old-fashioned playhouse) where she’s had theatrical encounters – “I’ve stood outside in winter while someone shouts Pinter…” We got a lung-busting blast from the virus-stymied musical Six, courtesy of one of its stars, Natalie Paris, and a nostalgia-stirring soupçon of panto dame-ing from dolled-up Paul Biggin (“My husband... drowned in a vat of coffee – horrible way to go but at least it was instant”). A homage to slavery abolitionist Mary Prince (performed with physicality and intensity by Amantha Edmead) intruded a note of BLM fervour to the jamboree, besides which Lucy Porter’s mitherings about surviving marriage etc during lockdown inevitably looked a tad fluffy.
But due profundity was restored by the climactic video message from the venerable Fry, surrounded by books and emitting kindly concern, praising the totality of theatre (“Here’s to the ushers and the ushed”) and leaving us with thoughts about, and the sight of, the theatre’s “ghost-light” – that solitary, sector-wide, centre-stage symbol of hope – “to let the world know that we will be back, when this storm has passed”.
For details of how to watch and donate, go to oxfordplayhouse.com