Review of the Year 2020

31st December 2020

By Adam Nichols | Artistic Director

Today is New Year’s Eve – traditionally the day when we reflect on the year past – both its highs and its lows – and look ahead to the next twelve months with hope and excitement. How then to begin to digest and assess 2020?

It has obviously been an incredibly difficult year for our local community, our country and our world. The public health crisis has rightly been everyone’s main focus, but the economic impact of coronavirus has been felt just as strongly, and is likely to affect us all for many years to come. In this regard the theatre industry, along with the wider leisure and hospitality sector, has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic and will probably never be the same again.

OVO and The Maltings Theatre have not been immune to the challenges faced by live performance venues and production companies throughout the UK, and we’ve taken some heavy blows throughout the year. However, it isn’t just my eternal optimism that allows me to recognise that the seismic shifts of recent months have created opportunities for us – opportunities that we’ve hopefully been able to seize and which have enabled us to play a prominent role in the beginning of the arts sector’s recovery from Covid-19.

I’m immensely proud that we’ve been able to give paid employment to tens of actors and creatives who would otherwise have been claiming government support (or perhaps delivering parcels for Amazon) rather than practising their craft. I’m equally pleased that we’ve provided entertainment and escapism to thousands of audience members starved of live performance – as well as shared experience and laughter – during the months of lockdown we have endured.

An unintended and unexpected benefit of our work this year has been to raise our profile and reputation to the point where we are now recognised as a regional producing theatre of national significance. And we’ve achieved all this without taking a penny from the government’s surprisingly substantial financial rescue package for the arts.

Act 1 – Spring

We shuttered The Maltings Theatre on Tuesday 17th March – a night that none of us will forget in a hurry. Little did we know then that it would be 200 days before we presented another public performance there, or that it would be the first of three occasions during the year when we would have to close a show. Sadly, for our great friends at Dyad Productions, the two previews of their production of The Unremarkable Death of Marilyn Monroe would be the only performances of what should have been a national tour lasting several months. An early casualty of a brutal year.

OVO was also halfway through its run of The 39 Steps, the third production of The Maltings Spring season which had already seen successful and critically acclaimed runs of Lossless, a disturbing new play by Stephen Tomas, and Gone, a characteristically powerful and brave performance from our associate youth theatre company The Byte.

It felt fitting that we were able to bring back The 39 Steps to reopen The Maltings in October, and we were delighted with our ★★★★ review in The Stage which said: “This imaginative interpretation is as clever as it is witty and as moving as it is original… A tour de force.”

Within weeks of the start of lockdown 1, we produced a live, interactive, musical version of Twelfth Night live on Zoom. Whilst streaming has since become ubiquitous, this show was in the vanguard of pioneering a new form of theatre, inspiring hundreds of subsequent productions.

Amongst a string of excellent notices, London Theatre Reviews gave us ★★★★ and commented: “OVO has struck gold with how to deliver an engaging, fun and accessible piece of theatre during this time. An experience like no other.”

Act 2Summer

Another milestone in the middle of the year was the signing of a House Agreement with Equity – an important step in our development as a company and venue, reflecting the importance we place on the actors and creatives we work with being fairly paid and well treated.

With summer in full swing and theatres still closed, we took the initiative in putting pressure on the government to allow open air live performance to restart. In less than a week we gathered more than 8,000 signatures on a petition and created the ‘Coalition of Open Air Theatre’, consisting of more than 30 leading outdoor venues and production companies, from The Minack to Glyndebourne. This led to a swift change in government policy, and theatres could reopen at last.

A month later we opened a 2½ week open air theatre festival at the Roman Theatre of Verulamium, our sixth year at this spectacular and unique venue.

We produced two in house shows – The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry V – which played to packed houses and a string of 4 and 5 star reviews. The ★★★★ Daily Express review said of Merry Wives: “Delivered with don’t-give-a-toss energy and seasoned with pandemic jokes and other topical references, it is an inventive and laugh-out-loud remodelling of Shakespeare’s rush job.” And the Daily Mail gave Henry V ★★★★, highlighting “A tireless sense of fun that no downpour could dampen”.

We were delighted to welcome some of the UK’s leading outdoor touring companies to make special guest appearances. Folksy Theatre presented a passionate Taming of the Shrew, The Pantaloons brought an anarchic Sherlock Holmes and The Handlebards performed their irreverent take on Romeo and Juliet.

The weather was, by and large, pretty horrendous! We’ve been lucky with our outdoor shows over the years, but it was typical of 2020 to serve up fairly relentless rain and occasionally freezing temperatures. However, it was testament to the quality of the theatrical fayre on offer and the hardiness of our 5,000+ wonderful (and oh so characteristically British) audience members that an incredibly special atmosphere was created throughout the festival and the event was an artistic and commercial success. Even the hand sanitiser won rave reviews, and we now own a very effective pump…

Act 3Autumn 

Buoyed by our conquering of the British weather, and filled with optimism that the global pandemic was now on the wane, we next put together an 8 week Autumn season back at The Maltings Theatre. Including the aforementioned The 39 Steps (which featured in a glorious reopening night on 6th October), we were able to present 4½ of 8 planned productions before the second lockdown began. These included additional runs of Merry Wives and Henry V, alongside The Regina Monologues, a modern reimagining of the six wives of Henry VIII (written long before Six was even thought of) and a brand new political satirical opera, On Behalf of a Madman, which opened the night of the US Presidential election.

Again, we were blessed with wonderful support from our ever loyal audiences and I’m delighted to say that the shows that we weren’t able to present – A Room of One’s Own, Trestle and Express G&S – will return in 2021 alongside the remaining performances of Madman and the final production postponed from Spring 2020, Meet Me At Dawn.

Act 4Winter

Our final act of the year was to try and preserve the flagship St Albans Christmas show at the Alban Arena. Evolution Productions has built an excellent reputation over the past 11 years for its annual pantomime which is much loved by the local community. Due to Covid-19, they were forced to postpone their scheduled production of Mother Goose and so we stepped in at just a few weeks’ notice to produce a new adaptation of Peter Pan.

We assembled a fantastic cast, crew and creative team drawn from our various productions throughout 2020. Together we created a beautiful show, which was generating a fantastic response from (record breaking) audiences, as well as rave reviews. Seen and Heard magazine said: “OVO is an extraordinary company and everyone is so multi-talented as actors, singers, dancers, and frequently musicians. A high energy and very sophisticated performance… I cannot recommend it highly enough.”

Sadly, we were only able to complete 8 of 38 scheduled performances before St Albans was once again placed into lockdown and the curtain fell prematurely on 18th December for a third time this year. This has been a devastating blow for everyone involved, but there is huge love for this show and we are determined to bring it back at the earliest opportunity in 2021 – the remaining performances have already been rescheduled for February.

So there it is – one of the most surreal, challenging and yet strangely uplifting years I can remember. If I had to pick one word to sum up 2020 it would be “resilience” because it is the steel and resolve of our local partners, associate companies, jazz and folk clubs, audiences, actors, crew, creatives, volunteers, staff and trustees that has ensured we’ve managed more than mere survival. Despite everything, we end the year with optimism and confidence, and with great pride for what we’ve been able to achieve over the past few months.

All that remains for me to say is THANKYOU for your continued support. Let’s hope 2021 is a safer, calmer, happier year for all of us. We are looking forward to continuing to entertain you and bringing you more innovative, imaginative and inspiring theatre in the months to come.

All the best,

Adam Nichols | Artistic Director