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With socially distanced concerts not viable, UK venues are fighting hard for the right to reopen with a full house, says the LW Theatres CEO
By IQ on 06 Aug 2020
Beverley Knight’s landmark 23 July show at the London Palladium was a “blessed relief” for everyone involved – but it also showed that socially distanced concerts aren’t viable for the vast majority of music venues, according to Rebecca Kane Burton, CEO of West End venue chain LW Theatres.
British soul singer Knight played to a crowd of around 640 – some 30% of the Palladium’s normal capacity – as part of government-backed ‘pilot’ scheme designed to how venues might operate with social distancing ahead of the planned return of indoor shows on 1 August (now pushed back to at least the 15th). A second pilot event took place at another London venue, the the 1,250-capacity Clapham Grand, on 28 July, with Frank Turner playing to a 20% full room.
“The most horrible thing about the past 19 weeks has been not being able to open these doors,” Kane Burton, reflecting on the Palladium pilot event, tells IQ. “The excitement and thrill of working with my team again to put on that show was a blessed relief.”
Kane Burton (pictured) is full of praise for both Knight and the Palladium team, describing the former as the perfect performer given the circumstances.
“Not many people would be ballsy enough to get on stage with the room only 30% full,” she says, “but Beverley did it with gusto – she got everyone up on their feet dancing, which in turn made people feel like they were allowed to enjoy themselves.”
“The excitement and thrill of working with my team again was a blessed relief”
As for the LW/Palladium team, the message from Public Health England was that “they couldn’t find one flaw” in how the show – which featured temperature checks and a host of hygienic gadgetry – was organised.
However, while she says she considers the Palladium show a success, Kane Burton – like Ally Wolf from the Clapham Grand – is clear that it should not be used a blueprint for how live events may reopen safely in the UK.
For a start, both shows lost money – “Normally the ratio of staff to customers [at the Palladium] is 1:40,” explains Kane Burton, “but for Beverley Knight, it was 1:10; no promoter is going to pay for that” – and while Knight did her best, even the PHE officials present noticed the lack of atmosphere present with a sparse, mask-wearing audience.
“Socially distanced venues don’t work,” says Kane Burton. With a 70% empty venue, “you’re not allowed to have that moment of escapism” that comes with seeing a show at a packed venue, as the Knight gig showed, she adds.
“To get an atmosphere you need to fill the place to the rafters. That’s how you get a rocking Palladium, and that’s how you bring venues back to life.”
Knight agrees. “I would not encourage any performer to step inside an auditorium where they’re playing to 30% capacity,” she tells IQ. “Financial considerations aside, that energy that you need isn’t there.
“To get an atmosphere you need to fill the place to the rafters”
“And equally for the audience listening: they appreciated what we’re doing on stage but they didn’t feel ‘in’ the gig. The euphoria wasn’t there.”
Along with much of the UK live music industry, Kane Burton is now pushing the British government for a reopening date for non-socially distanced shows, as well as working with PHE to develop guidance for post-Covid-19 performing arts.
While the Beverley Knight show didn’t provide a roadmap for the future of live in the UK, it did signal to the rest of the concert business that venues are pushing hard to reopen when they’re allowed, concludes Kane Burton.
“We wanted to send a message to all promoters and agents that we, as a venue industry, are not resting on our laurels,” she says. “We’re here in the trenches, and everything we’re doing is about getting the industry back on track.”
“We need to get going again, because without live music, this country loses its soul,” she adds. “We can’t just sit here and do nothing.”
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