The Season Ahead

This time last year, pantomime companies up and down the country were ready to launch Panto Season 2019. Usually my inbox would be overflowing with photographs of casts in front of theatres, racing down high streets, packing bags in supermarkets—oh how things have changed. Most of our theatres remain closed, high streets are deserted and supermarkets remain socially distanced, hand sanitised areas of weekly mundanity.

Six months on since theatres were forced to close, Panto Season 2020 is looking very different from the year we all expected. Easter pantomimes were the first to suffer the COVID-19 cull, however summer brought us outdoor pantomimes as the Great British public picked up their camping chairs and set outside for silliness in the sun from the fields of Clifton Reynes to the Nothe Fort of Weymouth. Only weeks away from Halloween and with the government now permitting indoor, socially distanced shows, October brings us the very timely BoJo’s World: The Panto at Liverpool’s Bombed Out Church and more traditional ghoulish fair in The Curse of the Haunted Pirate Ship at the Forum Northallerton. However, with lockdown restrictions increasing in certain parts of the country, The Spooky Spectacular Panto and adult panto Sinderella at Armstrong’s Bar, South Shields have both been cancelled. The shows were intended to raise money for local theatre The Customs House in South Shields, which itself is currently shut and has postponed its pantomime to 2021.

But is it all doom and gloom? What other way to answer than question than “Oh No It Isn’t!” Pantomime has survived centuries due to its willingness to evolve and 2020 will be no different. Despite what many media outlets are saying, Cinderella shall go to the ball and 2020 will definitely have a Panto Season.

Before exploring the season ahead, it’s important to take stock and assess the harsh reality of lockdown on the theatre industry. This year will see a pantomime season reduced by around 70%. 194 venues that would usually present a pantomime are not, having either cancelled or postponed their show to next year. Many venues are now confronting the reality of closure on account of no panto season. A report commissioned by The Stage determined that 2016’s pantomime season had a total box office of just over £60 million. Using this figure, which does not account for growth or an increase in ticket prices, we might expect 2020 to yield just over £15 million. But this figure is but a pipedream as social distancing means available tickets are dramatically reduced, runs are much shorter and the venues choosing to proceed are small to medium in capacity size. The £60 million figure is heavily supported by shows at venues such as the Birmingham Hippodrome that take over £1 million in ticket sales annually. In 2016, 23 productions achieved this, accounting for 38% of that year’s box office. Larger venues, however, are unanimous that under social distancing, presenting a pantomime would be financially unviable and impossible due to restrictions on space. The only exception being Qdos Entertainment, who thanks to Lottery funding are able to proceed at the London Palladium, Mayflower Theatre in Southampton and Newcastle Theatre Royal in a scheme that will see the National Lottery purchase seats unable to be occupied due to social distancing restrictions. Financing larger scale shows is also further complicated by the end of the furlough scheme and necessity to make redundancies.

So, what can we expect from Panto Season 2020? At present, 97 pantomimes have been confirmed throughout the country from Billingham to York accounting for circa. 34% of a non-COVID season. Most shows will run for between 60 and 90 minutes without an interval and comprise smaller principal casts of between six and eight. Companies have revealed casts will be in a social bubble throughout rehearsals and the show, meaning a Christmas season away from family and friends—true commitment to the artform. Very few productions will have a Juvenile Ensemble and the majority will use recorded music to keep costs and headcounts low. To increase capacity in a reduced period, some productions will be offering up to four performances a day (nine at Cadbury World!) and have changed their original title to one that better fits the restrictions in place from a narrative point of view or enables them to keep costs low by utilising existing scripts, sets and costumes.

Celebrity wages are a luxury panto season 2020 cannot afford; however, the Theatre Royal Windsor is pushing ahead with its full-scale production of Cinderella headlined by Britt Ekland and has extended the run accordingly. Shone Productions will also stage a full-scale panto at the M&S Bank Arena, Liverpool. Jack and the Beanstalk will be headlined by X Factor and I’m a Celebrity… star Jake Quickenden, who most recently won Dancing on Ice. And it'll be no expense spared at the London Palladium, where Qdos Entertainment will present its only show of the season. Pantoland at the Palladium features an all-star cast led by Julian Clary, who also co-writes, with fellow Palladium regulars Gary Wilmot, Paul Zerdin and Nigel Havers. Beverley Knight, Charlie Stemp, Jac Yarrow and Ashley Banjo & Diversity complete the cast, which after years of criticism against a lack of female representation, at present still only has one female performer (Knight) in its Principal Cast, who is billed as a "Special Guest".

Unable to present full-scale shows, venues known for their pantomimes have come up with a new type of panto-inspired production featuring their resident Dame and / or Comic. In Norwich, Richard Gauntlett will take to the stage in Panto in a Pickle! as the Theatre Royal’s favourite Dame seeks to restore order to Pantoland after a mix-up that sees Cinderella with magic beans, Aladdin sleep for 100 years and Captain Hook stop Snow White going to the Royal Ball. This playful approach of combining pantomimes and assigning the Dame the task to restore order is echoed in Watford Palace's Dame Terry's Merry Christmas, Corn Hall, Diss's The Magic of Panto, Fisher Theatre, Bungay's Raiders of the Lost Panto, the Octagon Theatre, Yeovil and Marlow Theatre Canterbury's Nurse Nellie Saves Panto and Sheffield’s Christmas Show Damian’s Pop Up Panto. This year’s show will take place at the Crucible Theatre due to the Lyceum Theatre’s temporary closure and see resident Dame Damian Williams as Dame Dolly on a quest to recover the Joy of Pantomime after it’s stolen by an evil Villain, providing plenty of opportunity for COVID-19 satire. Sheffield may have experienced a change in venue, but in Perth, it’s the audience who will be on the move in promenade production Oh Yes We Are!—A Quest for Long Lost Light and Laughter. Socially bubbling audience groups will join resident Dame Barrie Hunter and a whole host of pantomime characters as they progress through a series of scenes set in and around Perth Theatre.

Spatial optimisation has been a key consideration for all venues and perhaps the biggest surprise of the season comes from the National Theatre, who, after presenting Cinderella in 1983, will stage a revised version of the Lyric Hammersmith’s 2018 pantomime Dick Whittington this Christmas. As the National Theatre’s second pantomime in its entire history, this is a significant development, with Dick Whittington constituting one of very few pantomimes to ever have been staged in-the-round on account of the Olivier Theatre’s reconfiguration. For those dreaming of the National Theatre presenting the Nation’s own and most loved artform each season, it seems unlikely given Artistic Director Rufus Norris’s statement that it was returning “for one year only.” Reflecting on the chance to revisit the title, writers Jude Christian and Cariad Lloyd revealed,

In 2018 we set out to celebrate the heart of the Dick Whittington story—that London has always been, and will always be, enriched by the brilliant brains and invigorating spirit of those who come from all over the world and call it home. That's a story we want to tell now more than ever, and in quintessentially British fashion: with irreverent jokes, talking animals, awesome songs, and wholesale destructive silliness.

Many casts are still to be revealed, including the National's, but in a year that has seen a drive for greater representation on stage, it is shocking that to date only eight productions have been announced featuring performers of colour: The Stag Theatre (Sevenoaks), Otterspool Adventure (Liverpool), Tivoli Theatre (Wimborne), Malthouse Theatre (Canterbury), King's Theatre (Portsmouth), Nottingham Playhouse, Stage Door (Southampton) and the London Palladium. With two months to go before the start of the season, there is still time for producers to ensure diversity in casting and avoid the all-white principal casts already in place in Billingham, Blackpool, Gravesend, Rugby, St Helens and Tonbridge, equating to circa. 10% of the season.

New pantomime venues are popping up all over the country for 2020 as producers try to fill the absence of many a theatre’s usual festive offering. The Luton Hoo Estate on the Bedfordshire / Hertfordshire Border welcomes TAG Talent Group, who are erecting a big top for their production of Aladdin starring Union J’s Jaymi Hensley as the Genie. In Whitchurch, Immersion Theatre’s Dick Whittington will take place in a marquee at Alderford Lake and all over the country company The Parking Lot Social will present car park panto Cinderella.

But what do you do if no venue is available and you still want to create a pantomime? You take the show on into the community! York Theatre Royal will be touring to all of the city’s 21 wards, where audiences each night will vote on whether they want to see Aladdin, Dick Whittington or Jack and the Beanstalk. After ‘YorkGate’ earlier in the year when the Theatre Royal announced Evolution Productions would be collaborating on its 2020 panto leaving regulars Berwick Kaler and co moving to Qdos Entertainment at the Grand Opera House, perhaps a year off will give everyone time to breathe and come together again to celebrate pantomime in all its forms for 2021.

Touring aside, York Theatre Royal’s festive offering harks back to the days of repertory theatre, a form that Stratford Playhouse is also embracing this season with Jack and the Beanstalk and Sleeping Beauty. The Blue / Orange Theatre in Birmingham is also staging two pantomimes: Sleeping Beauty will entertain the whole family whilst Blo White is strictly for adults-only.

A reduction in live productions for 2020 sees a shake-up in the usual Top 5 of titles with mixed-up panto narratives currently the most popular. Sleeping Beauty and Jack and the Beanstalk are tied in second place, Dick Whittington is in third position, with Aladdin and Cinderella relegated to fourth and fifth place. 2020 also sees productions of Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, Mother Goose and Puss in Boots with some titles tweaked to reflect the current pandemic, such as The Stag Theatre, Sevenoaks’s Jack and the Two Metre Beanstalk and the EM Forster Theatre, Tonbridge’s Robin Hood and his Socially Distanced Merry Men.

To date, there have been a number of online pantomimes announced for Christmas, with an adult production of Pinocchio successfully completing its run earlier this summer. Different approaches to the capture and delivery of pantomime result in a variety of experiences on offer. Peter Duncan has filmed a version of Jack and the Beanstalk in his back garden, whilst Panto Live’s Cinderella and the Great British Pantomime Company’s Goldilocks and the Three Bears have opted for CGI backgrounds with live actors. Producers of online pantomime are coming up with some fascinating ways to achieve the interactivity of live performance, from pre-distributed questionnaires to live comment fields and a dashboard of buttons to join in with every cheer and boo. For those who prefer the comfort of their own home or are unable to visit a pantomime, these streamed shows may just deliver the festive tonic required.