Published: 06:00, 08 June 2021
| Updated: 14:46, 08 June 2021
The boss of Kent's biggest theatre has told of her excitement as the venue's doors reopen today for the first time in almost 450 days.
The Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury is set to welcome back audiences as it launches multi award-winning musical Six.
Deborah Shaw talks ahead of The Marlowe's reopening
Its door have been shut since March 17 last year, when Covid had started to take hold across the county.
The theatre's chief executive, Deborah Shaw, admits there have been "dark moments" since, with months spent worrying for the future of the iconic venue.
But it was thrown a lifeline in November in the shape of almost £3 million in government funding to ease the financial burden it was under.
And today it will reopen to a socially distanced audience, with Mrs Shaw saying: "I would be amazed if the roof stays on!"
"We just can’t wait to welcome people back and have a big celebration," she told KentOnline.
Mrs Shaw hopes the venue will be back to full-capacity from June 21 - the earliest date lockdown restrictions will be eased by the government. But she says there are “lots of different scenarios” to stay open if that is not possible.
She told how the producers of shows at the theatre are “taking a punt” because they are not supported by any government schemes and are using their own cash.
“Because we’re in the centre of the city we feel we really want to contribute to getting some life in,” she said.
“It’s pretty high-octane, we’re living on sheer adrenaline like we have been for 448 days, and we can’t wait.”
Until The Marlowe was given a £3 million cash boost as part of its second round of Culture Recovery Fund grants, Mrs Shaw says it had been running an "absolutely enormous deficit".
And although the recovery will continue this year, she is confident her team will "come back better".
“One of the things that’s really saved us is that our audiences have continued to buy tickets and have taken it with such good grace when we have had to reschedule things and they have gone with that," she said.
“They have given donations, bought subscriptions, given membership - so we are all in this together, and whereas a lot of places have got to start from scratch again, we have brought a huge audience with us. We know we have got bumpy years coming in ‘22 and ‘23.”
The pandemic has presented new challenges for many people and businesses across the country, and for the Marlowe it is no different.
"I think 1660 was the last time theatres experienced this after theatres were closed in 1642," Mrs Shaw added. "That is a longer period, but even during The Blitz some theatres stayed open."
Portrait artist Ben Dickson was commissioned to create a host of illustrated cut-outs to populate seats that will be left vacant due to social distancing rules.
The Whitstable-based artist was challenged to create 50 portraits in less than a month, which will be used to fill the unusable seats around the auditorium.
And the art gave a much-needed boost to the cast of the pantomime, Nurse Nellie Saves Panto, in December, which was forced to be shown virtually following the announcement of Tier 4 restrictions.
“They had dress-rehearsed the pantomime and were ready to put it in front of an audience," Mrs Shaw said.
“There were tears and everything when we had the Kent variant and lockdown over Christmas. It was a really dark moment but then we said we’ll put it online for our audiences as a present.”
The production was streamed to about 1,500 care homes at Christmas and the theatre's boss said she would stream it again in future years following its success.
Six, which will kick-off The Marlowe's reopening, was playing to sold-out houses in London’s West End and was on tour across the UK and Australia before the pandemic struck.
And it also had its opening night in New York cancelled when Broadway was shut down before the show was due to open.
"It’s a beautiful piece of high-octane theatre and it’s controllable, as in there is no interval and it’s a limited time," she said.
"We’re all ready and really confident. We have a couple of Kitemarks of safety and we’ve been following all of the government guidelines."
Six was nominated for five Olivier Awards including Best New Musical, and has been performed annually in front of thousands at West End Live in Trafalgar Square.
The new tour has been rehearsed and will premiere at The Marlowe before touring to theatres across the country.
The Marlowe says it will be complying with all of the latest government guidance and the highest industry standards to make the theatre Covid secure for audiences when it reopens
Six will be performed to a socially-distanced audience, meaning there will be fewer people in the auditorium than normal.
Ms Shaw added: "Hopefully it will be like a seamless experience of celebration rather than nervousness or anything about rules.
"We’ll learn something on the first night and then we will be absolutely flying I think."
Tickets for Six are on sale now and can be booked via The Marlowe's website, or by calling the theatre's box office on 01227 787787.
Elsewhere in Kent, one theatre has already welcomed back audiences for a socially-distanced punk gig.