When Kerry Ellis performed an intimate and socially distanced show in a small London club earlier this month, the emotion was palpable.
As well as the good cheer her renditions of Christmas classics inspired, a sense of gratefulness was also etched on audience members' faces.
Everyone was living in the moment, because who knows what the pandemic will bring tomorrow?
Speaking to The National before her appearance in the much larger Christmas musical celebration, Jingle Bell Rock, at the Dubai World Trade Centre on Friday, December 18, Ellis says the pull of live performance has never been stronger.
“I feel that no matter where you are, people are desperate to get back into theatres,” she says.
“And when we haven't had that for almost a year, it makes everyone quite emotional. It makes it a sense of occasion. I definitely felt that during the UK show last week and it will be the same in Dubai. It will be something to cherish.”
The tragedy of the West End
That sense of occasion has been truly underscored this week with the British government's recent decision to put London under the toughest lockdown measures from Wednesday, December 16, to halt the spiralling rates of Covid-19 infections.
The news deals another blow to the city's cultural heart, the West End theatre district, with venues shutting doors once again after a steady comeback for productions including the musical Six, Love Letters, Everybody's Talking about Jamie and a concert version of Les Miserables.
Ellis is acutely aware of the pain caused by the latest and necessary government measures.
A fixture of the scene, she is hailed as the "UK's leading lady of musical theatre" with a two-decade career of star turns in Les Miserables, Wicked, Oliver! and Cats.
Ellis, 41, says the damage caused to West End, both economically and culturally, is incalculable.
“It is tragic and not only for the faces you see on the stage, but for the many people backstage, front of house, the crews and producers,” she says.
“I am also really worried about the effect on the many regional theatres outside. So many of them rely on big shows during this time to set them up for next year. I hope that they get a bit of support and funding to have another shot.”
A glass half full
The precarious situation has forced performers to work off script. With venues shuttered, Ellis says the creative buzz migrated online with a number of singers using social media to perform live-streamed concerts, provide workshops or simply engage with fans.
Ellis did all three with the launch of her podcast Keep Calm and Kerry On, in which she chats with fellow West End colleagues such as singers Shaun Escoffery, Samantha Barks and choreographer Arlene Phillips about the heart of their craft.
“This is something that I would never have done if it wasn’t for this situation because I am normally working or travelling for a show,” she says.
“But these conversations were important because it gave us a chance to reflect on what we do. I loved how even during this time, these conversations were really positive and it shows that people in the scene remain resilient with a glass half full approach.”
The big comeback
Ellis can’t guess when curtains will be raised again in the West End. What she is sure of, however, is that it will return with a bang.
“Once we have the vaccine and everybody can get back into fully capacitated venues, then I think it's just going to boom,” she says.
As for what shows people will flock to, Ellis predicts it will begin with fan favourites before people branch out to more experimental productions.
"There will be a bit of people going back to what they know and shows like The Lion King can be considered a safe bet," she says.
"But the West End always thrives due to its diversity with shows and plays big and small. This is the spirit of it and people love to be there and feel it."
West End matters
Until then, the UAE will get a chance to experience some of its key talents with Ellis joined on stage by the The Barricade Boys, a much-loved male vocal ensemble who appeared in Les Miserables.
The concert, Ellis says, is not only dedicated to the resilient spirit of her stage peers facing an uncertain future back home, but an example of the West End’s contribution to the world.
Ellis hopes the theatre community are not forgotten as part of the UK’s recovery plans.
“There is a growing general respect to what we do, especially in these times,” she says.
"What we are doing is not just providing escapism, but creating a sense of togetherness and well-being which is vital for mental health. What we do is more important, perhaps, than some sections of the government have been led to believe."
Jingle Bell Rock featuring Kerry Ellis and The Barricade Boys at the Dubai World Trade Centre. Friday, December 18. Show times are 3pm and 8pm. Tickets from Dh175 at dubai.platinumlist.net