(Friedman’s article appeared in the Guardian, 10/15; Photo: Chaotic and farcical … The Pin – Ben Ashenden, left, and Alex Owen – are coming to the West End. Photograph: Oliver Rosser/Feast Creative. )
The stage maestro says the magic of live performance is vital for our mental health. And now she’s bringing that alchemy back with comedy duo The Pin and their debut play The Comeback
It’s seven months since I shut my last show – and most theatres are still completely dark. It’s the longest prolonged closure since the days of Samuel Pepys. Theatre has endured war, riots, depression and, yes, even disease. Its absence is damaging this country and doing harm to the mental health of its people, and I’m determined to do anything I can to help bring it back.
Exactly two years ago, David Walliams took me to see a brilliant young double act called The Pin at the Soho theatre in London. Watching their hilarious sketch show, I cried with laughter. And I wasn’t alone. The whole audience lost it. It’s strange to think back on that evening now. I’m not sure I’ve laughed like that in months. You rarely do while watching TV, or surfing YouTube on your phone, do you? Not in that same sustained and unstoppable way. For that, a joke has to be shared. People have to set each other off. “I wasn’t alone” – that’s the key. There’s something about live comedy, live anything, that you can’t recreate at home. There’s a kind of alchemy to it. Everything’s enlivened.
Right now, we need that, maybe more than ever. This year has taken a huge toll on us all: mentally, physically and spiritually. We need the opportunity to let go. We’re craving connection and spontaneity. Live theatre – performance – offers that release, and has done for thousands of years. It lets an audience feed off each other’s emotions, whether laughter or tears, and share in a silence. It’s why Oscar Wilde called it “the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being”.
As social, emotional animals, we need that. Theatre’s vital to our collective well-being and mental health, and the overwhelmingly positive public response to the Palladium Panto and the Les Misérables concert announcement is testament to that.
Now, thankfully, theatre’s making a tentative return – albeit in a limited, socially distanced form. The financial constraints of producing socially distanced theatre are seriously prohibitive and there’s no way our industry can survive like this long-term, but for now, so long as we are allowed, it’s incumbent on us to get our shows back on our stages somehow. It’s a big financial risk, but it’s one we have to take wherever we can follow the health and safety guidelines. Socially distanced theatre will never work financially, but it is vital – in every sense.
That’s why, this December, I’m producing The Pin’s debut play The Comeback in London’s West End. It’s a dizzying and delirious new comedy that tells the story of two double acts fighting for control of the most chaotic, farcical and high-stakes gig of their respective careers. It feels like the right show for right now. Some people say farce encapsulates the human condition: people clinging desperately to dignity as their world spins out of control. Others just see door slams and slapstick. Either way: bring it on. Following all of the government-approved performing arts working guidelines, I hope The Comeback gives theatregoers of all ages the great night out they deserve after this year.
It’s taken a lot to get here, but I have been determined to get back to work. Audiences need a chance to escape. Freelancers, many of whom have gone without financial assistance, need opportunities to return to work. From March to May, I was in shock and survival mode. Having shuttered 18 productions worldwide in two weeks, and paused another 10 in the pipeline, I tried to stay sane by focusing on the other side.