Old Vic theatre plans ‘supremely informal’ welcome back for audiences

·5 min read

The Old Vic in London will welcome back theatregoers this summer in a “fun and unintimidating” fashion, almost 16 months after closing because of the pandemic.

Artistic director Matthew Warchus, who over lockdown staged a series of starry livestreamed shows in the empty building, said he had thought hard about whether returning to venues would be a hurdle for audiences. Admitting that even he had felt intimidated entering theatres in the past, he intends the whole experience – “walking up to that building, buying a ticket, going into the auditorium, sitting and watching” to feel “supremely informal”. A free membership scheme has been launched giving discounts to those who live nearby in the boroughs of Lambeth or Southwark.

Warchus has called on Emma Rice, the director of colourfully vibrant shows for Kneehigh and Shakespeare’s Globe, to create a big summer crowdpleaser. Rice, he said, makes shows that are “easygoing without dumbing down”. She suggested an adaptation of the 1987 film Bagdad Cafe, about the unlikely alliances forged at a Mojave Desert diner. It brims with magic, music and fun, said Warchus, with a resonant story about “people emerging from loneliness and isolation into a sense of togetherness”. Live performance itself, he added, is a “great unifier”.

A world premiere, Bagdad Cafe is co-produced by Rice’s Wise Children company, which staged an adaptation of Angela Carter’s novel of the same name at the Old Vic in 2018. Bagdad Cafe will open in mid-July for a month-long run and will be streamed after it closes. It will be preceded, from 7-10 July, by a revival of Harold Pinter’s darkly comic 1960 two-hander The Dumb Waiter, starring Daniel Mays and David Thewlis, staged before a reduced capacity audience in the auditorium. It will be livestreamed for the theatre’s In Camera digital series, which began last summer with the play Lungs, starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith.

Warchus said they had been “making it up as we went along” when they experimented with the Lungs stream, but the In Camera series is here to stay and two or three digital productions a year could become part of the Old Vic’s future programming. It has been eye-opening for the organisation to see the global audience it could reach beyond the building, he added.

The Dumb Waiter, about a pair of hitmen, was also revived at Hampstead theatre in London just before Christmas. Short plays with small casts have been favoured in the past year by theatres whose box office and bar income has been hit by reduced capacities and social distancing. Another two-hander, Caryl Churchill’s A Number, performed by Lennie James and Paapa Essiedu, will be staged by the Old Vic in early 2022.

Emma Rice’s production of Wise Children, starring Oman Douglas and Melissa James, at the Old Vic in 2018. Rice will stage Bagdad Cafe at the theatre this summer.
Emma Rice’s production of Wise Children, starring Oman Douglas and Melissa James, at the Old Vic in 2018. Rice will stage Bagdad Cafe at the theatre this summer. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

During lockdown, “every artistic director in the country was researching monologues, two-handers and three-handers like crazy,” said Warchus, though he stressed that under his leadership the 1,000-seat theatre had a history of staging productions with small casts as well as large ensembles. “It’s a surprisingly intimate large auditorium. Smaller scale work can land there every bit as effectively.” A larger cast will fill the stage for the return of Jack Thorne’s version of A Christmas Carol, which has been put on every year at the Old Vic since 2017. “We are going to do whatever we can to keep our aspirations high in an attempt to do work on many different scales,” said Warchus.

Patsy Ferran and Luke Thallon – “two of the most startlingly superb actors of their generation” – will star in another world premiere, Camp Siegfried by US playwright Bess Wohl, to open in September. The play is based on a real summer camp on Long Island for Americans with German heritage and is set against the rise of nazism.

In spring 2022, Terry Gilliam and Leah Hausman will co-direct a revival of the fairytale musical Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. The theatre has also commissioned new plays by Diana Nneka Atuona, Natasha Gordon, Regina Taylor and Roy Williams, and a musical version of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr, with book and lyrics by Caroline Bird and music by Miranda Cooper and Nick Coler. In June, there will be a series of digital monologues curated by the actor Noma Dumezweni to mark Refugee Week.

Matthew Warchus at the Old Vic.
Matthew Warchus at the Old Vic. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Related: Lennie James meets Paapa Essiedu: ‘I was probably in the last wave of actors who needed to go to the US’

The closure of UK theatres has been “more severe than any of us expected”, said Warchus, who a year ago warned that the Old Vic faced a “seriously perilous” situation. He remembers the “massive sense of shock” and “loss of control” wreaked by the pandemic on one of London’s oldest theatres, a charity that usually relies entirely on ticket sales, sponsorship and donations. It has survived the crisis by making use of the government’s furlough scheme, staff taking a 20% pay cut, a “lifeline” grant of £3m from the Culture Relief Fund and support from individuals and partner companies. “We did lay off some staff,” he said. “A lot of companies had to do that. But we were able to keep many more staff than we’d feared.” The lockdown had exposed the precariousness of freelance careers, said Warchus, and theatres must now explore what sort of support, beyond employment, they can offer the freelancers who make up 70% of their workforce.

Warchus will spend the next few months at Shepperton Studios filming a version of the musical Matilda, based on the hit RSC adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel about a superpowered bookworm. He said the proposed 50% funding cut to arts subjects at universities, which could come into effect from this autumn, is a “disgrace”.

“I was told when I was at school that music and drama were Mickey Mouse subjects,” he recalled. “I thought that had died out. The government really needs to get with the rest of the public and wake up to the fact that the evidence is unassailable for their value.”