Multi-award-winning producer Sonia Friedman, like so many other producers across the world, hasn't had the 2020 that was planned. Rather than completing the run of the much-lauded Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter Theatre and Tom Stoppard's Leopoldstadt, opening Dreamgirls on tour or kickstarting a new run of groundbreaking plays at the Ambassadors Theatre, Friedman has spent many of the last months keeping large-scale productions temporarily closed as the pandemic rages on – while also vocally campaigning for the welfare of the arts.
Change is afoot this winter however – rather than closing, Friedman is about to open a brand new play in the West End – a debut piece from iconic comedy duo The Pin. The piece is aptly titled The Comeback – about two pairs of failing comics who play the most important gig of their lives. As we launch our brand-new Curtains for Theatre Without You campaign, we talk to Friedman about the show, the game-changing nature of vaccines and her hopes for the future.
The arrival of the vaccine, as well as rapid testing, was nothing short of a gamechanger: "We have to acknowledge that this is a major breakthrough for our industry. This was the first time in eight months that I saw a road to recovery. We will be back and we will be back fully as soon as that vaccine's completely out there. By late spring or early summer. "
Before then though, she has to unveil The Pin, best known for their smash-hit Fringe comedy shows and Radio 4 appearances, to the theatre world: "I think they're going to be an utter revelation. One of the privileges I have is to show off incredible and uniquely gifted guys – and take them to the next level of their careers."
One cornerstone of Friedman's future plans is the season of new work planned for the Ambassadors Theatre on St Martin's Lane. It's the perfect venue for it – fresh vibrant voices side-by-side with the longest running production in the world, The Mousetrap just next door.
Friedman explained her motivation for the season: "I started my work as a commercial producer at the Ambassadors. It's where I had my office and I programmed and presented a whole range of work there.
"It was so exciting to build on the last 20 years of experience and, alongside my development team, bring what I did then into the 21st century. I wanted to create room in the West End for new, radical, progressive work that wouldn't necessarily have found a home in the West End. We had so many great things lined up – comedy, cabaret, theatre – a mixed, diverse array of work."
The good news is – SFP at the Ambassadors looks set for 2021: "I said to my team a few months ago: 'we're going to do it'. Just as soon as we know we can get to stage five [at which point social distancing can be eased in venues – the Ambassadors being too small to suit socially distanced audiences]. We're going to reinstate it – and add even more than before".
One immediate loss will be Richard Gadd's incredible award-winning Baby Reindeer – due to Gadd's lack of availability – Friedman says the comedian is about to become a "super duper star" – but the performer has promised he will return as soon as possible.
Another exciting plan for 2021 is the eagerly anticipated return of Jerusalem, which Friedman says might not just be headed for London: "We quietly revealed it on social media – one of the first post-pandemic productions to reveal itself. And we absolutely will be back, next year. We're going to do it, hopefully on tour first and then in the West End with Mark Rylance.
"Mark is very committed to being there once theatres reopen – we want to be one of the first shows there celebrating the rebirth of our industry. There'd be no better way to return than with one of the best plays of the century."
But plans for the new year don't mean there weren't important lessons to gain from 2020, Friedman emphasises: "We've learned what an incredibly powerful yet fragile ecosystem we're a part of. Theatre is the number two reason for international tourism after national heritage – we are a vibrant, successful industry. Whenever we call for support, we are not asking for help, it's an investment – to reboot this global enterprise. Writers, designers, actors, musicians and directors we see now on screens of all sizes across the world – they all started in our extraordinary system."
But one fundamental aspect of the industry urgently remains unsupported – the freelance community. "The pandemic has exposed a very serious issue within our industry that needs to be addressed. We have to remind ourselves that there is a group that has been left out. Of all of this. One of the reasons I'm doing The Comeback – the main reason so many of us are putting shows on – is to ensure that our freelance community can get back to what they were trained to do. So many of them have slipped through the net."
"We need to shout very loudly about ways to support the freelance sector. I hope the government, ACE and DCMS can find a specific fund to help them. We're not going to be back fully for several months – and those are going to be hard months for those who aren't supported."
We will have more from Friedman in the coming weeks as she discusses the incredible journey behind Uncle Vanya's TV broadcast.