London's Theatreland has come roaring back from shutdowns and lay-offs

This week, 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane' provided a post-pandemic tonic

West End theatres have been hit hard by the coronavirus disease pandemic but have reopened with new and old shows. EPA
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The ambiguous nature of the troubled mind is something at the heart of the new production of Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane, one of the star runs after the restart of the London stage.

After the troubles of 2020 and 2021, when shows were cancelled en masse, the sight of crowds lining up outside venues in London's Theatreland has marked a visible symbol of the city's return.

West along the Tube line from central London in the ornately decorated Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, the staging of The Beauty Queen of Leenane talks in ways to the just-gone periods of cooped-up tensions that most in the audience will have experienced. Set in the wet west of Ireland, the staging allows for rain to constantly run down the windows, contributing to the claustrophobic atmosphere of lives hemmed in.

The plot revolves around the relationship between an apparently archetypal malevolent and manipulative Irish mother and the unmarried 40-year-old daughter, who has sacrificed a life of her own to look after the matriarch. The two actors in the lead roles manage the almost fetid tension, giving the audience powerful in-the-flesh performances.

Ingrid Craigie, left, and Orla Fitzgerald in 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane'. Photo: Lyric

What could been viewed initially as daughter Maureen's (Orla Fitzgerald) resentment at the petty strains of daily care for ailing Mag (Ingrid Craigie) is gradually revealed to have its roots in a breakdown suffered by Maureen. A full house was audibly responsive to the twists in the play. At points, people would laugh or make a noise, underlining how the Irish work was resonating at some personal level distinct from the crowd.

That is the beauty of theatre-going, and with at least half of the audience wearing face masks, there was plenty to provide a reminder of where we've come from after Covid-19 ravaged the UK.

The return of theatre in the UK

There is something elemental about sharing an experience with a great mass of people. Highly professional productions such as this one sit at the forefront of the creative industries that contributed £115 billion ($157bn) to the UK economy in 2019. The government stepped in to provide £1.5bn ($2bn) support for the sector over the lockdowns, plus a £500bn ($685bn) production restart fund when the theatres reopened in late summer.

The latest gross domestic product figures from the Office for National Statistics for August showed that leisure was leading the recovery. But there is still ground to be made up. Whereas the overall economy was at that stage 0.8 per cent smaller than before the pandemic, the footfall in London's West End was 39 per cent down on the figure in August 2019, according to the New West End Company.

Industry body the Creative Industries Federation points out that freelancers comprise 70 per cent of the music, performing arts and visual arts sector. They were particularly hard hit as the government schemes did not cover casual work. Paule Constable, a founding member of Freelancers Make Theatre Work, told the federation that many skilled workers had been forced out of the industry. "As producers pick up the phone and look for electricians, makers, wardrobe departments, carpenters, performers and stage managers, they are discovering how many freelancers have left the industry," she told an industry blog.

All the signs are the recovery has continued strongly in recent weeks. A weekend matinee performance of Hamilton was an immense display of physicality. The very rhythms of the language and the power of the script provided an immersive dip into another world.

The variety on offer in London is second to none. In Haymarket, a short run of The Tiger Who Came to Tea was sold out to younger audiences and their parents.

'The Tiger Who Came to Tea' had a short run in Haymarket. Photo: Theatre Royal Haymarket Twitter

The dramatic overhaul of the UK's red list of inbound travellers forced into hotel quarantine has led to an influx to the British capital from places such as the UAE and the rest of the Arabian Gulf.

In reality, for the producers of big-budget musicals such as Victoria Palace Theatre's Hamilton or Wicked across the road, there remains a dependence on American tourists. The dangers of the full houses beginning to empty out are very real. News last week that the US travel market could open to British and other international travellers on Monday, November 8 offers the prospect of a boost in flights put on by the airlines across the Atlantic.

In turn, that should mean the American tourist is both fully vaccinated and perhaps more ready and willing than the locals to sit in the stalls wearing a mask.

As the advertisement on a London bus for The Book of Mormon proclaims, the message will be: "Welcome Back."

Updated: October 17, 2021, 9:17 AM