Not just for Christmas: panto cancellations threaten theatres' future

Chris Wiegand Stage editor
·7-min read

It’s like a scene from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Dozens of pantomimes across the land have been cancelled or postponed due to uncertainty about easing lockdown restrictions for theatres. On Wednesday it was announced that pantos at King’s theatre in Edinburgh, His Majesty’s theatre in Aberdeen and Belfast’s Grand Opera House have been pushed back to 2021. All three are produced by the huge Qdos operation whose pantomimes are seen by more than two million people each festive season.

King’s theatre puts on the bestselling panto in Scotland, playing to audiences of more than 90,000 each year. It provides nearly 30% of the annual income for its operator, Capital Theatres, and the postponement will result in a £2.3m loss. Fiona Gibson, chief executive of Capital Theatres, said it was the “biggest blow to date” of the perilous months that have left the UK theatre industry in crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Michael Harrison, joint owner of Qdos, has been calling for greater clarity about the timing for stages four and five of the UK government’s roadmap to reopening theatres, which would permit larger audiences for indoor performances. For Qdos’s panto season to happen “as we know it”, Harrison said he needed to know target dates for reopening by the start of August. With culture secretary Oliver Dowden’s recent confirmation that a timeframe is now unlikely to be given until November at earliest, Qdos says it is left with no choice but to consult with its partner theatres about the viability of each Christmas show.

Though it is only August, pantos take months to prepare and many venues and producers have been unable to commit to spending money on shows that might be scrapped. Theatr Clwyd in Mold, the Tron in Glasgow and Sheffield Theatres are among those that have already postponed their pantos until next year. On Monday, Canterbury’s Marlowe theatre did the same. Its Christmas production is normally seen by 100,000 people. On Tuesday, Theatre Royal Wakefield said it was not only postponing its panto but was remaining closed until spring 2021 due to the ongoing wait not just for clarity from the government about theatre reopenings but also for exactly how the £1.57bn arts rescue package would be made available to struggling venues.

Many UK households who consider a pantomime one of the essential trimmings of Christmas will be disappointed not to make a date with their local panto dame. But the effects of the cancellations will be felt deeply for theatres long beyond the festive season. As Andrew Lloyd Webber recently said, pantos are the “lifeblood” of regional theatre.

Gayle Knight is the creative director of Civic Arts centre and theatre in Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire. Christmas, she says, is “our big income generator, like for every other theatre in the country”. They get packed houses for the panto for two straight weeks and attract many school groups. “We’ve already heard from headteachers in the area that they won’t be coming to the panto this year because it will be too difficult,” she says.

Indoor performances with social distancing are set to be allowed from later this month. If still in place by winter, the rule would mean the 457-seat theatre would have an audience of 140. “That makes it completely unviable at our traditionally busiest period,” says Knight. “If we don’t have a good Christmas then we really struggle in January and February, which is our quietest time.”

If we don’t have a good Christmas then we really struggle in January

Gayle Knight

The Civic would have been celebrating its 10th anniversary this month. The venue is in an area currently under stricter lockdown rules than other parts of the UK, and Knight is planning to reopen in September. Her team of eight has been furloughed. “If we can’t open fully for Christmas then that’s when we’ll have problems,” she says. The theatre may put on an Easter panto instead. They have had small grants from the local council and from Arts Council England’s emergency fund, and have fundraised. Knight hopes the government will consider extending the furlough scheme beyond October for small venues like hers, rather than ending it at a time when full indoor performances may still not be permitted. Otherwise, she says, the Civic will be open but unable to trade properly and “it negates the good work that the government has done done on job retention”.

The Civic has a vital role in the community. Before the pandemic, the building was buzzing. As many as 2,000 people a week visit the centre, not just to watch shows but for activities including dance classes, drama groups, knitting and photography classes. Knight remembers when a group of parents came to see their children’s drama show and enjoyed it so much they decided to put on their own production. If the Civic wasn’t there, its community would have to travel a considerable distance for a similar provision, she says. When a small theatre in a small town closes, she adds, it will likely remain closed for ever.

In recent years, the Civic’s panto has been provided by TaleGate touring company, whose artistic director (and frequent dame) is James Worthington. They stage pantomimes in several venues of a similar size to the Civic and visit schools and social clubs. Between 40-60% of TaleGate’s panto ticket sales are from schools and they are waiting to hear whether those schools will book this year. Unlike larger theatres and touring enterprises, TaleGate can act nimbly and don’t need to decide yet on which productions they can stage. They have two musical Christmas shows that are performed by only two actors, with one accompanying technician, making social distancing easier and allowing greater flexibility. One of the reasons they keep the productions small is so tickets are affordable – part of their mission is to bring theatre to audiences who might not otherwise experience it.

Panto has given generations of people their first taste of theatre. There is a risk, this year, that a new intake of panto fans will miss out – and these would be the theatregoers of the future. “If we don’t have panto this year, are families going to fall out of the habit and not return next year,” asks Worthington. And if audiences get used to watching theatre online, he adds, will they come back for the real thing?

Related: Good tidings he brings! Johnny McKnight, Scotland's panto powerhouse

The thing that makes panto special – its boisterous interactivity – is what makes it problematic during a pandemic. These are shows that shower the audience with sweets, dragoon audiences into ridiculous situations on stage and involve as much shouting as possible. The Tron in Glasgow, which is postponing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz written, directed and performed by Johnny McKnight, said in a statement that, beyond the financial risk, “we very much feel that pantomime needs to be enjoyed in a packed auditorium”. Interaction is integral to the experience, it said, and anything different “would be shortchanging our audiences”.

Pantomime, Worthington stresses, is at the heart of the theatre ecology. He quotes the title of a book about Salisbury Playhouse: Putting on Panto to Pay for the Pinter. The Christmas box-office bounty enables regional theatres to stage a variety of other work. Those venues are themselves inseparable from the more prominent, better-funded organisations in bigger towns on the UK theatre map. Snobbery about panto and regional theatre persists. Small, rural theatres such as the Civic are often thought of as a “poor relative to the larger venues”, says Knight, but are a “breeding ground for talent. Without us, many of the stars of the West End wouldn’t be where they are today. We are equally as professional as larger venues but on a more modest budget and with more modest ambition.”

Worthington is concerned that the government’s £1.57bn emergency culture funding will show a bias to arts “with a capital A” such as what Dowden called the “crown jewel” buildings. “In the rural locations we go to,” Worthington stresses, “these regional venues are the crown jewel to that community.”

The great fear is that by next Christmas, for some regions, it won’t just be a panto that is missing – but the theatre itself.