When you walk through a storm

The Covid-19 pandemic brought the theatre industry to its knees. And so you can imagine our delight at being able to present the first live West End production to reopen amidst the pandemic in 2020. But, did you know that this is not the first time that the Open Air Theatre has had to, as Nettie Fowler puts it, “walk through a storm”?

Thanks to the 2005 film Mrs Henderson Presents (Will Young, Bob Hoskins and Judi Dench), it is well-known that the Windmill Theatre remained open during the war; however, it’s perhaps not so well-known that there were not one but two theatres that stayed open from 1939-1945 – with Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre doing just the same.

As war raged overhead, performances had to change – the first being a staple of the Open Air Theatre: A Midsummer Night's Dream (1939). In association with the Ministry of Works, seasons were made up solely of matinees, theatrical lighting was removed and productions often took place with little to no scenery and limited costumes. Productions like Henry V (1941) were greatly received for their patriotic themes, but perhaps harder to cast with a lack of young men able to take on roles such as King Henry.

Despite air raids alerts that could happen during performances (as one stage management report states) and the constant fear of the dangers around them, cast, crew and audiences came together in what were undoubtedly the hardest of times.

Fast forward and 2020 presented an entirely different threat to life for the world to face…

Covid-19 saw all theatres in the UK close. All plans for a 2020 season halted and staff were sent home for their own safety. After three long lockdowns, with a significant amount of limbo in between, it was announced that outdoor theatres could reopen and so, following stringent safety guidelines, on 14 August, we opened Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert. This was the first live West End production to reopen during the Covid crisis. The atmosphere and audience reactions to the first few performances were incredibly emotional and could be felt by everyone backstage and beyond. Applause rang out even before the orchestra had finished the overture and the mood was electric.

Our rescheduled 2020 season productions Romeo and Juliet and Carousel then took place from 17 June 2021, with social distancing meaning that they initially played to a reduced capacity of 639. Full houses then returned from 21 July.

The landscape of theatre has certainly been changed by such catastrophic events, but here at the Open Air Theatre we have been honoured to be able to offer the industry we love a sense of hope in such truly dark times. We now look forward with great anticipation to our 2022 season – which we cannot wait to share with you soon!