Events of the last couple of years have permanently changed our perceptions of many aspects of life, including theatregoing.
To give a simple example, in 2014, those that booked tickets to see performances of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time that were cancelled after the roof of the Apollo Theatre fell into the auditorium rightly expected a refund, but many will willingly have accepted a ticket for a subsequent performance instead.
During the pandemic, for obvious reasons most theatres were very reluctant to offer refunds, some suggesting not just that patrons might wish to defer their tickets to a performance at a later date but tear them up and donate the amount that they had paid to support the theatre’s future.
Nowadays, we have several variations of this theme so that it seems worth taking time out to consider what is the bare minimum that one might expect from a night out at the theatre, before it becomes unacceptable. This will vary from patron to patron.
It is hard to imagine that anybody would disagree with the proposition that if the performance is cancelled, that will not constitute a good night out. In these circumstances, you would expect to get your money back either directly or via tickets for a performance that actually takes place.
Strangely, that is not the way that some airlines view life, but pleasingly, those in our industry have a more enlightened outlook.
It gets slightly trickier when this becomes a personal issue. For example, if one member of your family tested positive for coronavirus and the law required them to self-isolate, this would have necessitated a last-minute cancellation (and arguably still should today). Such action would lead to a pure financial loss for somebody—either you or the theatre. Who should it be?
The world’s obsession with stars can cause additional problems when the illness afflicts those on the other side of the curtain.
If you have paid the price of a second-hand car so that the family can enjoy Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster starring in The Music Man, you might feel pretty aggrieved if COVID led to understudies taking out one or both of the stars.
That happened and some performances were cancelled, quite possibly because COVID is dangerous but that may also have been a commercial decision.
As Keith Mckenna outlined in the introduction to his review of King Lear at Shakespeare’s Globe, a similar dilemma faced producers when Kathryn Hunter in the title role had to take time out suffering from COVID.
Instead of cancelling performances and refunding tens of thousands of pounds that the theatre could ill afford to lose, the producers recruited another (very talented) actor to portray King Lear on book i.e. reading the text from a script.
Presumably most of those present accepted an unfortunate situation and did their best to enjoy the experience. However, it is hardly the same as watching someone who has rehearsed a role for months in a production that must have been built around them.
Surely, ticket-holders would have been justified in requesting a refund or, if they were available, tickets for another night when Ms Hunter was back in fine fettle?
The real controversy is likely to start when it becomes more subjective. Stories about drunken actors of the past are legion and one wonders whether substandard performance could be a justification for demanding a full refund?
How about a new play that is regarded by both critics and lay viewers as a complete disaster?
These are the kind of real-life problems that are exercising both punters and producers on a daily basis at the moment.
For the most part, going to the theatre is a joy as you watch your favourite star or beloved story unfold on stage or enjoy the real frisson of seeing a completely new work or even art form alongside several hundred other (hopefully healthy) equally delighted folk.
Let us hope that the latest vaccine does the trick and the most frequent of these issues become few and far between in the next few months and into the future.