Some shows will go on...

The past few months have been full of announcements for Panto Season 2020. But rather than the usual reveal of celebrity headliners, postponement after cancellation has been confirmed with 19% of the season currently affected by the pandemic in some way.

Pantomimes take at least a year to plan and with many employees furloughed and offices at a standstill, time is running out.

Qdos Entertainment, the world’s largest pantomime producer, imposed a deadline of 3 August to decide whether its season could go ahead. In a statement, Qdos announced:

“Based on the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s reiteration last week that the Government won’t be providing further guidance on theatres operating without social distancing until November at the earliest, we are left with no choice but to begin the consultation process with our partner theatres about the viability of each show.”

Without a date for Stage 5—when theatres can open without social distancing—the risk to a producer is vast. Whilst the green light may come in November, it’s impossible to know whether it will, or how how much advance warning will be received, particularly as the government gave less than 24 hours’ notice of postponing socially distanced indoor performances from 1 August for at least a fortnight.

Even if venues can open, will there be an audience? Will they have enough staff or money left to function by Christmas, let alone schedule casting, rehearsals and marketing?

Qdos is currently in negotiations with each of its 34 venues to ascertain the pantomime’s viability. Productions already postponed include: Goldilocks and the Three Bears at the Grand Opera House, Belfast due to COVID-19 and its impact on the theatre’s renovation schedule, Beauty and the Beast at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, Sleeping Beauty at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Cinderella at the Mayflower, Southampton, Goldilocks and the Three Bears at the Birmingham Hippodrome, Aladdin at Hull New Theatre and Robin Hood at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham. It appears Qdos is starting negotiations with large independent venues that are trusts or charities.

Even if Qdos desires to proceed at its other venues, the decision does not fully rest with them. In the case of Ambassador Theatre Group, where Qdos presents many of its shows, can the company weather the cost of new measures, cleaning routines, equipment and reduced seating, having already made 1,200 casual staff redundant?

Back in July, I mused on what a COVID-19 panto season might look like and it is welcome to see that some companies have embraced the opportunity to present open air pantomimes this summer. However, outdoor performance isn’t an option for the Christmas season, so what do we now know about Panto Season 2020?

Whilst many venues are postponing their pantos, some producers are willing to take the risk and present a socially distanced show in 2020 with theatres embracing temperature checks, one-way systems and increased cleaning.

First to announce its COVID-secure 2020 pantomime was the King's Theatre, Southsea, which changed titles from Peter Pan to Dick Whittington. Peter Pan will now take place in 2021, permitting regular Dame Jack Edwards to headline Dick Whittington, a show that, unlike Peter Pan, does not require expensive flying equipment or multiple children to play the Darlings and Lost Boys. John Challis, originally announced as Hook, will appear at the venue next year. Producers have been forced to rethink their production models and reduce risk, mostly by decreasing the number of people involved, as cast, crew and creatives are often one of the biggest outlays.

Promoting your regular Dame or Comic to Headliner reduces the budget but retains the sense of community and continuity. At the Stag Theatre, Sevenoaks, Alice in Wonderland has been postponed to 2021 to make way for Jack and the Two Metre Beanstalk headlined by resident Comic Ant Payne as Silly Billy. In addition to Payne, the show’s cast will comprise five actors: Mandy Muden (Fairy Fleshcreep), Rosie Glossop (Fairy Fabulous), Jacob McIntosh (Jack Trott) and Jamie Alexander Wilson (Dame Trott / writer / director), many of whom have worked for Wilson before. The familiarity of colleagues will provide a short hand in rehearsals, and also a layer of trust as the cast must self-isolate from November until the end of the season, giving up contact with friends and family over the festive period.

The 90-minute production will see stage crew and dancers reduced to four a piece and only feature some aspects of live music. Quite how the production will stage Daisy the Cow is still to be seen, but a one-person costume was used in the company’s 2010 version of the tale. Having embraced CGI scenery in recent years, perhaps this technique will also be used to create a magnificent Giant and reduce those needed for scene changes? One thing that will definitely be missing is any romance—holding hands and kissing are definite no-nos under social distancing, which is perhaps why there is no Princess, and by default no King. Even if the cast manages to avoid COVID-19, the schedule’s three- and four-show days will prove a gruelling regime ripe for panto-flu.

Unlike Jack and the Beanstalk's adventure narrative, romance lies at the centre of Sleeping Beauty with the jury out as to how the Deco, Northampton will stage the famous awakening scene. Committed to presenting its pantomime this December, the venue is now adding performances to its schedule as 19 of its 34 shows already exceed audience social distancing capacities. Unlike Sevenoaks, Northampton’s pantomime will feature children in the ensemble, albeit fewer than usual, and have a slightly shorter running time of 80 minutes.

Other venues to have confirmed they are proceeding with socially distanced, COVID-secure pantomimes are: Spa Pavilion, Felixstowe (Cinderella), Godalming Borough Hall (Beauty and the Beast), The Pearce Institute, Govan (A Lad in Govan—a Socially Conscious Panto!), The Woodville, Gravesend (Rapunzel), Garrick Theatre, Lichfield (Jack and the Beanstalk), Luton Hoo Estate (Aladdin), Theatre Royal, Norwich (Panto in a Pickle!), Coatham Memorial Hall, Redcar (Dick Whittington), Dearne Playhouse, Rotherham (Mother Goose), Benn Hall, Rugby (Cinderella), Ropetackle Arts Centre, Shoreham (Almost a Panto—A Family Christmas Adventure), Stratford Playhouse (double bill of Sleeping Beauty and Jack and the Beanstalk), EM Forster Theatre, Tonbridge (Robin Hood and his socially distanced Merry Men), St Helens Theatre Royal (Beauty and the Beast), Pavilion Theatre, Weymouth (Aladdin), Tivoli Theatre, Wimborne (Jack and the Beanstalk) and Windsor Theatre Royal (Cinderella).

The Millfield Theatre, Edmonton will also be presenting its annual pantomime, but has changed titles from Snow White to Puss in Boots to reduce cast numbers. The venue previously collaborated with Hoxton Hall on its 2017 version of the feline tale and staged the story as an Easter pantomime at sister venue the Dugdale Centre in 2018, both times written and directed by the Millfield Theatre's Creative Producer Marc Day.

The aforementioned venues vary in capacity from the Millfield Theatre (362) to the King’s Theatre, Southsea (1,400), but what they all have in common is a sense of autonomy and the fact that their pantomimes are produced in-house or by a local producer with fewer than three venues. This means decisions can be made extremely quickly and both venue and producer can react swiftly to any changes and, more importantly, be on-site to project manage.

For larger producers, high capacity venues and theatres operated by a chain, it will be much more complicated. With months to go, there is little time to rewrite more than 30 shows in the case of Qdos, although Fiona Gibson, Chief Executive of Capital Theatres, has revealed that the venue is in very early stages of discussing a potential alternative, smaller-scale panto with the production company for Easter or should a vaccine be found before Christmas. Similarly, Evolution Productions is working closely with Sheffield Theatres to create a pop up panto featuring resident Dame Damian Williams for the Crucible Theatre due to the current closure of the Lyceum Theatre, and is exploring a “Plan B” for the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, a venue that usually welcomes an audience of over 100,000 each Christmas.

It will be interesting to see whether 2020’s Pandemic Pantos impact the future of the genre. Might we see more one-act shows? Fewer cast members? Four performances a day? Shorter seasons? Of course, should indoor performances without social distancing get the green light in November, the shows that choose to go ahead could make a substantial profit. And therein lies the rub. As venues declare that losing their pantomime will lose them between 20% and 30% of annual box office income, has the UK’s theatrical landscape become too reliant on pantomime as subsidy? Has the theatre industry been putting all of Mother Goose’s golden eggs in one basket for far too long?