Panto season now ‘up in the air’ for 2020

The producers of Damian's Pop Up Panto hope the show will go ahead, but it can't currently as Sheffield is in tier three

Sheffield Theatres

Pantomime producers have been left fearing the worst but planning for the best, following Thursday’s coronavirus tiers government announcement.

Theatres in tier three areas will not be able to reopen after lockdown ends on 2 December, unless they move into tier two following a planned review on 16 December.

Dan Bates, the chief executive of Sheffield Theatres, says the news is “devastating, but understandable”.

His group of theatres is in tier three.

This means indoor entertainment venues must close. The Sheffield Theatres venues – The Crucible, Studio and Lyceum – and their festive production of Damian’s Pop Up Panto (at the former) had been due to start on 6 December, but that is no longer possible.

“The last few days has been been like waiting for an exam result – what we’re going to do and what our destiny is really,” Bates told the BBC.

“What is frustrating is that we have seen the numbers [of coronavirus cases] reducing dramatically, particularly in Sheffield, and we’re all a little bit on the cusp actually.

‘Bring a bit of joy’

“But knowing we’re in tier three now means OK, we have a plan really.”

In fact, they have two. Plan A is to begin rehearsals under strict social distancing measures from next week, in case they are able to safely reopen their doors a week before Christmas.

Plan B is to figure out a way to provide a decent online streaming alternative, to give audiences “a little bit of magic” at home at least, in the event of them remaining in tier three throughout the holidays.

With 6,000 people having already paid for tickets, Bates prefers the sound of Plan A, and remains hopeful it can happen.

“Pantomime at Christmas in theatres is one of the most special times that we have, and I think to be able to bring a bit of joy – especially after the year we’ve all had – would be an, incredible thing to do,” he adds.

Sheffield Theatres run The Crucible, Studio and Lyceum

Smart Banda

As early as the summer, some of the UK’s biggest pantomime producers started cancelling shows amid financial and health-related Covid concerns.

Backing from the National Lottery in October meant some were able to be staged this Christmas, among them a star-filled spectacle at the London Palladium.

The tier two venue tweeted on Thursday to say they were “relieved and delighted” to confirm that performances of Pantoland will go ahead as-planned from 12 December.

Following today’s announcement, we are relieved and delighted to confirm that performances of Pantoland at The Palladium are able to go ahead as planned from 12 December.

— Pantoland at The London Palladium (@PalladiumPanto) November 26, 2020

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

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But Michael Harrison, whose company Qdos Entertainment produce Pantoland, was critical of how the tier system was planned, telling The Stage: “There is no joined up thinking at all.

“To go into lockdown, and encourage rehearsals to keep going and then to announce a tier system is crazier than many of the scenes you will see in one of my pantomimes.”

Another dormant theatre, Newcastle Theatre Royal, recently received Lottery funding; as well as a cash boost out the government’s Cultural Recovery Fund (just as Sheffield Theatres did).

Before the winter lockdown, their long-running production of Robin Hood had been due to take flight again on Tuesday 24 November. However, after the North East city was similarly placed in tier three, those plans are now “up in the air”, admits chief executive Philip Bernays.

The theatre boss, who says he should now be “recovering from the effects of the first night” is instead asking panto fans for a little more time to consider how to proceed fairly for all involved.

‘In a difficult position’

“We’ve not actually made a decision because we are still just looking at all the options,” says Bernays.

“We really didn’t want to disappoint the people of Newcastle and the North East,” he adds, noting how the appetite for theatrical festive fun remains strong, despite the pandemic.

“Everything is so fluid. We’re in a difficult position, the public are in a difficult position, and the panto team – many of whom are freelancers – are in a very difficult position at the moment.”

Newcastle Theatre Royal's plans for Robin Hood are now "up in the air"

Newcastle Royal Theatre

While the show has not yet been cancelled, rehearsals have not been able to get under way either.

Streaming it online instead, Bernays says, is simply not economically “viable” for them – a stand-alone independent theatre – if all ticket holders have to be re-funded.

“Time will eventually run out,” he concedes, just five days before everyone’s first advent calendar window gets ripped open.

“We all want to do the show and the audience all want to see the show, but we can’t keep everybody hanging around,” concludes Bernays.

“I think the review in a couple of weeks is going to be fundamental and we may have a holding position until then, but we may make a decision beforehand.

“It’s just up in the air.”

‘Catastrophic year’

Theatres Trust Director Jon Morgan reflected on the impact the tier rules would have on the theatre industry.

“It is a terrible blow for the theatre sector that so many large towns and cities in England are now in tier three, where theatres are not permitted to open,” he said.

“There are many theatres that we know were planning pantos and other shows for December, and this news will be devastating for those organisations.

“They will have invested in rehearsals and other preparations for reopening and will now find themselves unable to recoup those costs, facing further financial strain in what has already been a catastrophic year.”

Pantomime dames marching in London

Getty Images

Julian Bird, chief executive of the Society of London Theatre (SOLT) and UK Theatre, added: “Today’s announcement is a relief for theatres in tier one and two areas, including London’s West End, but equally devastating for tier three theatres, yet again forced to postpone or cancel shows – especially pantos, usually an annual highlight for families and a vital source of income for theatres around the country.”

He added the move “risks the survival of many venues and leaves thousands of theatre professionals struggling over the Christmas period, particularly freelancers who cannot rely on government support”.

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