Less is more: the season in stats

Back in September, it looked like 2020’s Panto Season would be a much-reduced affair: only 38 pantomimes had been confirmed and many producers said it would be impossible to operate at reduced capacities due to social distancing: Panto Season 2020 was virtually cancelled.

But fast-forward a mere couple of months and the season ahead offers a very different outlook. As of 30 October, 122 pantomimes are set to take place in 163 venues across the UK. This equates to roughly 40% of a non-COVID pantomime season—quite remarkable in a global pandemic.

The creative resilience from producers and venues has seen one-way systems installed in venues, new algorithms written for box office software, shows reduced to 90 minutes, casts and crews downsized and runs shortened greatly. Who would have thought that in a genre where excess and spectacle reign, 2020’s mantra would be ‘less is more’.

We mustn’t forget the 189 venues that will remain panto-less this season having been forced to postpone or cancel their festive show due to the challenges of COVID-19. Panto Season 2020 will be 60% smaller than previous years. Grants from the Cultural Recovery Fund can’t save these festive shows, but might help to save the theatres and enable future panto seasons. For Qdos Entertainment, a commercial deal with Camelot, the National Lottery operator, has helped subsidise their season, which in September looked like it wasn’t going to go ahead at all when the Ambassador Theatre Group suspended all pantomimes at their venues. Ten Qdos pantomimes are now slated for 2020, meaning the company retains its title as the season’s largest pantomime producer. However, having been ineligible or deemed culturally insignificant, many producers and venues have taken the bold step to proceed unsupported by subsidy of any kind, bearing the financial risk themselves.

The biggest absence from the season ahead is the many commercial producers who have had all their shows pulled. From Imagine Theatre to Polka Dot Pantomimes and Jordan Productions to Paul Holman Associates, these companies alone usually account for 40 shows. Evolution Productions is the only company to stage a number of pop-up pantomimes across the majority of their venues with UK Productions reducing its usual portfolio of eleven titles to one: Pantomonium! at the Grand Theatre, Blackpool. Indeed Blackpool residents are spoilt for choice this year as although the Winter Garden’s slated production of Cinderella has been postponed, three pantomimes will take place in the town as everyone fights for a piece of the pantomime pie. In addition to Pantomonium!, Aladdin runs at the Pleasure Beach and Cinderella will be resident on the North Pier.

It does seem remarkable that, given so many producers and venues won’t be producing a pantomime, 163 venues will receive one. Looking more closely at the statistics, an even more staggering figure emerges: circa. 45% of these venues are either producing pantomime for the first time or don't regularly schedule one. Producers have been forced to seek new locations to fill the void of those remaining dark with the high number partly due to drive-in pantomimes touring multiple locations, those playing single nights on tour and some sharing their season between two venues.

Panto Season 2020 was set to open on Thursday 19 November with Cinderella at the Theatre Royal Windsor and close on Saturday 16 January 2021 with Nottingham Playhouse’s version of the tale; however the Government's new lockdown rules for November means ten shows will need to reschedule their openings, whilst others question their viability. The Theatre Royal Windsor was due to enjoy one of the longest runs of the season not only in duration, but also in number of performances—a whopping 98. However, if that sounds impressive, the cast of D!CK: The Adult Panto at the Star Inn, Guildford was set to perform their pantomime 112 times across the season with four four-show days scheduled. The Stag Theatre, Sevenoaks’s Jack and the Two Metre Beanstalk also has four four-show days scheduled as producers try to increase the number of performances in a shorter run to recuperate costs and limit the likelihood of COVID-contraction. Most pantomimes are set to open over the weekend windows of 12 and 19 December and close around two weeks later, making this an incredibly short season for the majority of productions.

Usually the most performed pantomime titles, this year Cinderella and Aladdin are relegated to joint fourth place with the Top 5 as follows:

  1. Mixed Up Pantomime / Multiple Fairytales (17% of the season)
  2. Jack and the Beanstalk (13% of the season)
  3. Sleeping Beauty (12% of the season)
  4. Aladdin = Cinderella (11% of the season)
  5. Dick Whittington (9% of the season)

The Government’s ‘Operation Sleeping Beauty’ to re-activate the theatre industry seems to have struck a chord with pantomime writers as the title becomes the third most produced of the season. Pantomimes that regularly chart well such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves account for only 2% of the season with only one production of Peter Pan due to be staged. Large casts, a reliance on junior ensemble members and expensive flying equipment are just some aspects of that make these titles difficult to produce in a COVID-19 landscape. However, shows that are light on narrative in act two, such as Jack and the Beanstalk and Sleeping Beauty, lend themselves well to a one-act structure. In total, 47 venues equating to 39% of the season changed their title to ensure their festive show could proceed with many opting for a mixed-up pantomime tale that firmly puts their resident Dame centre-stage.

By this point in the year, most shows are usually in rehearsals and have been on sale for almost eleven months. With some productions still to open at the box office or even be announced, it will be interesting to compare final capacity figures and see how they impact future years’ marketing strategies. For the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury and the Grand Theatre, Blackpool, Nurse Nellie Saves Panto and Pantomonium! have become two of the venues’ fastest selling shows in history, such is the appetite for festive entertainment in a challenging year.

Many of this season’s pantomime tickets start from around £12 with the Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham’s Sleeping Beauty one of the cheapest at £8. Unsurprisingly, the most expensive ticket can be found at the London Palladium where the best seats in the house will set you back £128, or £178 if you opt for the hospitality add-on.

But for those who don’t get a ticket or can’t get to a pantomime, 2020’s biggest legacy of all might be the birth of the online panto. To date, over 20 are scheduled for streaming this Christmas from Peter Duncan’s Jack and the Beanstalk filmed on location to those pre-recorded in studios, not forgetting those set to be broadcast live from theatres and studios each night.

For listings of this year’s online, confirmed, cancelled and postponed pantomimes, see the remaining pages in this article.