It's Panto Season In Theatres. So Are You Safe To Watch One?

Christmas is a time for panto with family and friends – here's what to bear in mind before your visit.
Legendary panto dame Clive Rowe in Jack and The Beanstalk at London's Hackney Empire, December 2021.
Leon Neal via Getty Images
Legendary panto dame Clive Rowe in Jack and The Beanstalk at London's Hackney Empire, December 2021.

Christmas is a time when family and friends gather together to watch their local pantomime or play. In 2020, Covid took this fine tradition away from us, which is why there was so much excitement to get back to theatres this year.

However, those hopes are slowly being crushed thanks (no thanks) to Omicron.

In London, where cases of the variant are particularly high, the BBC reported that nearly a half of shows being put on by members of the Society of London Theatre have been scrapped. This list includes big West End shows Hamilton, Matilda, Wicked, The Lion King, Cinderella, Cabaret and Come From Away.

Not only is this hugely disappointing for audiences, it leads to huge losses for theatres, which have already experienced such a tricky two years.

The picture is just as challenging in regional and local theatre. Children were left in tears this week when a pantomime was called off just before the show was about to start in Kent – Beauty and the Beast at the Central Theatre in Chatham was cancelled due to a fresh Covid outbreak in the cast and crew.

But many producers and performers at venues all over the country are battling on to bring some pantomime magic just when we need it – also in Kent, panto regular Shirley Ballas had bounced straight from the Strictly Come Dancing final over to the Assembly Hall Theatre in Tunbridge Wells to lead the cast of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Pantomimes are part of the joy of Christmas and a successful season can make the difference between a local theatre staying in the red or being forced to close its doors for good.

But as cases of the Omicron variant rise, is it really safe to go to the theatre?

Current guidelines

Since prime minister Boris Johnson announced the new Covid rules of ‘Plan B’ on December 8, face masks have been required (unless you’re exempt) during screenings and shows in cinemas and theatres. Masks can only be removed when eating and drinking.

Showing proof of vaccination hasn’t been officially mandated in theatres, though many will ask to see your NHS Covid app showing a recent negative test.

Dame Rosemary Squire, joint chief executive of Trafalgar Entertainment said: “We’re encouraged that the Government has acknowledged that theatres are a safe environment by not extending the proof of vaccination rules to indoor seated settings at our scale.”

Knowing when to stay at home

It’s ultimately your call whether you keep your panto date in or not this year. It’s normal to feel anxious about attending indoor events in this climate, but theatres are working harder than ever to keep their environments Covid, from regular testing of cast and crew to re-introducing social distancing in their seating where possible, as well as ample hand sanitiser and mask notices.

If you have any worries, call ahead and theatre staff will be able to offer advice and guidance – bear in mind, it’s anxous times for them too, but they want to help and make sure your visit is as safe and anxiety free as possible.

It’s good practice to take a lateral flow test before going anywhere where there will be crowds. If any of your household tests positive, you should stay home.

Meanwhile, if you’re experiencing any Covid symptoms, you should obviously take a PCR test and self-isolate until you have your results.

How to cancel your tickets responsibly

Reselling tickets for any event right now is quite tricky. You can wait to see if the event gets cancelled and get a refund. But the show hasn’t been cancelled but you can’t attend or feel uncomfortable doing so, return your ticket as soon as you can so that theatre producers have to chance to resell it or make a call on numbers as to whether the show should go on.

If you can afford to do so, consider keeping your ticket to see if the show gets rescheduled. With local theatres being hit quite hard, you may even wish to donate the price of your ticket either way to supporting their future income.