It was exciting to receive an invitation to the Octagon's latest production on 26 May 2021 as it would be the first time I'd set foot inside a theatre for 14 months but it would also be my first time crossing the threshold of this particular theatre building for three years.
In May 2018, Summer Holiday took audiences on a tour around Bolton that finished in the theatre, on the last occasion it would be open to the public before closing for a major renovation project. Following this, several productions were staged at some local venues: Albert Halls is not a place I'll be in a hurry to revisit, but the football stadium suite converted well to a large auditorium for the Christmas shows—although it was a long drive out of town—and the lovely small theatre in Bolton Library and Museum was a real find.
Then, as the time for reopening approached, COVID hit—for the full story of how events played out at the Octagon at this time, listen to my interview with Chief Executive Roddy Gauld for the BTG podcast. Now, nearly a year later than advertised, we have a gentle rather than a grand reopening with a production (See You at the Octagon) that, despite it taking me longer to drive there and back than its total running time, works well as a gentle introduction for keen but tentative audiences and theatre staff to get used to the new arrangements and to being 'out' again.
Of course not everything went according to plan, but theatres have become used to having to react quickly to ever-changing situations and government regulations over the past year or so. Bolton had been in the news for a few days as a hotspot for the 'Indian variant' of coronavirus, but I know that for the Octagon, I can park practically across the road from the theatre and that theatres have had in place much stricter safety measures than any shop I've been in recently (mask-wearing and distancing by the staff in my local supermarket has been rather hit and miss, to say the least, throughout the pandemic). I wasn't due for my second COVID injection until the following day, but overall it seemed quite low risk to me.
But then, the day before the performance, the story broke that the government had changed its advice on travelling to and from certain towns in England, including Bolton, more than a week earlier without actually bothering to tell anyone. This had echoes of last March, when the government 'advised' people not to go to theatres but didn't give theatres any advice at all, stopping short of a legally enforceable lockdown that could have given them access to funding or insurance cover for the overnight loss of their entire income.
The government insisted that it was correct, seeming astonished that everyone wasn't looking every day at the advice on its web sites on the off chance that their region was mentioned, but 'clarified' its advice anyway—which amounted to watering down the advice from before so that it didn't look like another unofficial lockdown. On the morning of the performance, I received an e-mail from the Octagon to say that the show would go ahead but some people would be moved to different seats to ensure a 2m distance between 'bubbles', but they would understand if I wanted to change or cancel my booking. I didn't.
I arrived at the new main entrance to the Octagon soon after the doors opened, greeted enthusiastically by someone in a mask and with a QR code for my NHS Track and Trace app on a clipboard, who told me that I was the first audience member to arrive, which was quite special. Navigating the new staircases and corridors was a little disorientating, but there were masked ushers to guide us and we were greeted on entry to the new smaller bar area with a complimentary glass of wine. I'm sure the management team would have loved to shake everyone's hand and welcome them back, but that still isn't possible at the moment.
I sat alone with my glass of wine and watched as people arrived, trying to work out whether I knew them from just their eyes. I would usually have been reading my programme, but this and the ticket were digital and sent by e-mail—something I hope doesn't persist in the future as it really isn't the same. Then I entered the theatre to sit on a row of twenty-odd seats, every one but mine decorated with a red cross, and opened my reviewing notebook to the first blank page. The previous page was for Back to the Future the Musical on 11 March 2020.
That made it more than fourteen months since I was last in a theatre. That's probably the first time I have been able to say that—amateur or professional, as audience member, reviewer, writer, performer or a member of the production team—for more than three and a half decades. It's good to be back.