Phil Willmott

Phil Willmott's Week in Theatre: Lockdown, Live Streaming, New Show, New Theatre

Mrs Einstein - Relativity - The Einstein Musical It's week four of lock down now. Of course we're all inconvenienced and making sacrifices but if you work in the theatre industry there's the particular challenge of working out what to do to keep your career and income on track when there's no guarantee when venues will be open again.

I'm finding this especially frustrating as last year I wrote a new musical, MRS EINSTEIN.

It's about the young Albert Einstein's brief tempestuous first marriage to another brilliant scientist, Mileva Maric. They met as students and embarked on a particularly passionate love affair releasing great passion and great cruelty in both. They ended up penniless and their love, they developed a scientific theory at their kitchen table that would unlock the secrets of the universe. Shortly afterwards the Theory of Relativity was published with only Albert's name on it, catapulting him to fame and fortune leaving her behind. The couple separated in a blistering divorce that was as heated as their relationship.

It's all about being young brilliant, in love and misunderstood. We tried it out over three workshop performances, with the young cast of 6 reading from scripts on an empty stage and it proved itself to be romantic, funny, and poignant and, with a few rewrites ready to be performed in full this year. 

A premiere at The Finborough Theatre was scheduled, which of course had to be cancelled as the arrival of the Corona virus began to close everything down. So what to do with it now?

As the reality of lockdown hit, things seemed so bleak I seized up with hopelessness of it all and couldn't think about the future. With the prospect of a vaccine returning us to something like pre-Covid normality it's possible to think about what's next. There are two clear choices, wait until it can be presented live in a newly reopened venue or press ahead and present it on-line.

There are pros and cons to both so I'm particularly interested in the fortunes of another musical at a similar stage of development.

THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE is a new family show commissioned by the enterprising producer James Seabright five years ago. Like MRS EINSTEIN it's been tried and tested in front of test audiences and considered suitably polished that it could be premiered this year, at another high-profile off-west end venue, the Southwark Playhouse.

A run was scheduled to open there this January and Seabright optimistically carried on rehearsing before Christmas during tier 4 of London's previous Covid restrictions. Something the rules allowed for. Indeed I used this time to set up a new theatre, The Rotherhithe Playhouse, that could operate safely in compliance with government advice at the time.

The shift from the restricted freedoms of tier 4 to the severity of a lockdown, which basically imprisons artists and audiences in their own homes, wrecked the immediate plans for my playhouse and new musical and THE SORCERERS APPRENTICE.

The solution at Southwark has been to press ahead with performances but with an audience watching online at home. It’s very difficult to persuade audiences to book for a new show at the best of times. Will live streaming make that easier or will it disappear into the mass of online theatre content that we're currently seeing? Time will tell.

The complexities and practicalities of creating a production for online streaming during a pandemic, when at any moment the virus may require any member of a team to suddenly have to self-isolate, also seems to have held things up.

A press release yesterday announced that "unforeseen circumstances" would lead to a months delay before broadcasts.

We can now pay £10- £15 to see it via streaming platform from Friday 26 February - Sunday 14 March 2021.

But will we. Or would “the apprentices” have been better off waiting to perform the show traditionally in the same room as the audience and critics?