Lloyd Evans

The New Normal Festival shows how theatre could return

But unregulated shows are also starting to pop up spontaneously

The New Normal Festival shows how theatre could return
The Free Association's improv show, Jacuzii, at the New Normal Festival, starring Mae Martin. Photo: Cam Harle
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The New Normal Festival: Jacuzii with Mae Martin

Royal Victoria Patriotic Building, where the festival continues until 31 August

Vanity von Glow

Central London

So the madness continues. Planes full of passengers are going everywhere. Theatres full of ghosts are going bust. My first press night since March took place at a monumental Victorian building in Wandsworth where concerts are staged in an open-air courtyard. The entry process was less fussy than I’d expected. I didn’t need my phone and there was no ‘track and trace’ nonsense. A masked official aimed a ray gun at my face and showed me a reading — 36.4ºC. I’d passed the temperature test. He then pointed me towards a hand sanitiser. ‘Is it compulsory?’ I said politely. A look of fear crossed his eyes, as if violence were about to erupt, and he meekly repeated his request that I soap down my mits. The sanitising fluid, surprisingly cold, smelled like cheap vodka and it evaporated within a minute leaving my skin feeling delicate and silky.

In the courtyard, the staff wore masks. The spectators didn’t. Chairs were set out in pairs, or in larger clusters of threes, fours and fives. These large groups of seats were for spectators who lived together. Or who claimed to live together. There was no system of policing or double-checking. The venue’s capacity was significantly boosted by permitting larger ‘family’ groups to sit together. Outdoor venues like the Globe could use this method to bring in a decent crowd.

Before the show began, the players were visible warming up in a side corridor. No face masks for the thesps. A senior usher with an authoritative manner went around checking the seats to ensure that the correct distancing procedures were being observed. Then he whipped off his mask and introduced himself as the troupe leader. ‘Theatre is back!’ he announced. The crowd cheered ecstatically.

The leader brought on the star guest, a Canadian comedian, Mae Martin, who invited the audience to engage in banter and questions. ‘How was your love life during lockdown?’ ‘A lot of masturbating,’ said Martin. More chitchat followed and Martin made three random references: beards, bad Christmases and mistrustful teenage girls. The troupe of players then improvised sketches around these arbitrary ideas and they came up with some intriguing and sometimes witty material. But they made no attempt to disguise how staggered they were by their own cleverness. The crowd seemed to enjoy this ramshackle act of street theatre but I couldn’t help thinking about the troupe leader at the start of the show. He had played two contrary roles at once. First, with his mask on, he was the diligent usher enforcing the rules and wisely covering his mouth to stop the release of germs. A moment later, with his mask off, he was a carefree performer mingling onstage with his colleagues and putting himself at risk of contracting or transmitting the disease. His ability to switch from health cop to super-spreader shows that the rules are a fiction. Science has no part in this. It’s all about labels and presentation. The whole confusing charade deserves to be challenged and overturned. And it seems that acts of unregulated theatre are starting to pop up spontaneously.

I was invited to see a drag queen, Vanity von Glow, at a central London location. Tickets were on sale even though the performance was indoors. On a dozy Saturday afternoon I joined a crowd of several dozen in a side street outside the venue. No masks were in sight. People observed the rules of social distancing as punctiliously as the protestors at a BLM rally. The vodka was flowing freely when Vanity suddenly appeared in the doorway, two metres tall in her high heels, and with turquoise glitter on her eyelids that made her eyes look like tropical fish. Inside the venue we sat down in informal proximity like ordinary human beings.

Vanity introduced herself with a stream of surreal patter. ‘I’m a mother of three, an abseiling instructor, a devout Muslim, and an internationally ignored superstar.’ How did she survive lockdown? ‘By being the kind of drag queen who is happy to open her legs for anyone.’ Her performance was a medley of wisecracks and musical hits, mostly by Abba, which the crowd belted out at full throttle.

It was an unremarkably joyous get-together. But it was illegal too. During the interval everyone fanned out on to the street and the gathering assumed the character of a political meeting. The air was thick with complaints about our control-freak government and its senseless plan to wreck the economy while threatening to put us all under house arrest. Theatres are being destroyed in the name of ‘safety’, and yet playgoers who are ready to accept the risk are prevented from helping the showbiz profession by law. This travesty shouldn’t stand.

Wildcat theatres need to flourish and proliferate. Vanity’s pianist, Alice Keys, summed it up. ‘Everything humans love we will find a way to reinstate.’