19/12/2020 06:00 GMT | Updated 20/12/2020 12:22 GMT

Is It Curtains For Panto? How Struggling UK Theatres Have Been Forced To Adapt As Covid Wreaks Havoc On Their Busiest Period

Pantomime season keeps many theatres afloat, but without audiences packing them out, can the show really go on?

Actor Joe Standerline dressed as a pantomime dame marches on Parliament to demand more support for the theatre sector amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in London.

This time last year, Jimmy Fairhurst was in the midst of a 12 week showing of Cinderella at The Vaults in London. He’s the Artistic Director of Not Too Tame, a working class theatre company based in Warrington. 

They were due to do it all again this year, with another show in Warrington to boot. But, like many theatre companies, their 2020 pantomime season is looking very different.

After months in limbo, battling with constant movements of the goalpost by the Government, Jimmy and his team decided to cancel this year’s production of Jack and the Beanstalk. “It was saddening,” he says, “because we kept thinking, ‘can we do it, can we push it on?’ but, there was no chance to.”  

It just wasn’t economically viable for Not Too Tame, who usually bring the theatre to local pubs and social clubs, and doing it online didn’t sit right with Jimmy. Despite absolutely loving pantomime, it made more sense to focus on making 2021 the theatre company’s best year to date. 

For many theatres, it’s pantomime that keeps them afloat. In 2016/17, the total pantomime box office income was £60.2 million, which Jimmy says can “account for a third of a company’s yearly earnings.” 

For Oldham Coliseum, this is definitely the case. 

“Pantomime is our longest running show,” Chris Lawson, the Coliseum’s Artistic Director, tells HuffPost UK. “It’s a big income source for us so it supports and enables us to do a lot of the work through the rest of the year.” 

“It’s a big income source for us so it supports and enables us to do a lot of the work through the rest of the year.

Oldham Coliseum cancelled their annual pantomime in August because, even if Oldham wasn’t in Tier 3, social distancing measures meant they wouldn’t have been able to sell enough tickets to break even.

But Chris still felt a social responsibility to put something on for the local community, so they decided to go digital. Local families can tune in to watch a pantomime in the form of a monologue, by either Dame Dotty Trott in Jack And The Beanstalk or Cinderella.

Shorelle Hepkin, this year’s Cinderella, found preparing for the online pantomime pretty strange: “I was having to leave a gap for the call and response aspect and just hope that everybody at home is joining in and not sat there thinking, ‘What on earth is going on?’”

Still, Shorelle thinks it’s “brilliant” that school kids in particular are still getting a taste of Christmas magic this year and she’s extremely grateful for the opportunity.

Oldham Coliseum
Dame Dotty Trott in Oldham Coliseum's virtual production of Jack and the Beanstalk.

But other Coliseum regulars have unfortunately missed out. Mitesh Soni was in the middle of a showing of Oliver when the first lockdown was announced. Although he’s disappointed that he isn’t involved with Oldham’s well-loved pantomime this year, he feels even more sorry for the usual audience. 

“It’s a big thing, not just for people like me who are in the shows, but for people that come and see it,” he says. “For a lot of people, pantomime is their family tradition.” 

Oldham Coliseum has a stronghold of people that come every year, and it’s the young audience in particular who he’s sorry will miss out. And seeing children in the theatre, especially those who are there for the first time, is something Mitesh, Shorelle and Chris told me they’d miss the most this year. 

“You want to be able to make the shows you want to make, but if money is the main thing, then you’re just going to have to be a bit more savvy.

For both Not Too Tame and Oldham Coliseum, making the decision to cancel this year’s pantomime was not an easy one. Although he’s looking forward to next year, Jimmy knows a lack of pantomime means the financial aspect will be even more central to their decision making.

“It’s not really what you want to be doing,” he says. “You want to be able to make the shows you want to make, but if money is the main thing, then you’re just going to have to be a bit more savvy.” 

Other theatres are still stuck in what feels like permanent limbo.

Greater Manchester has been in Tier 3 since late October, and had been in a local lockdown for two months before then. There had been hope the city might leave Tier 3 meaning there would be a possibility for panto this year. However, it has been announced that Manchester will remain as it is for the next two weeks, at least. 

This is a blow for Manchester Opera House, as thanks to support from the National Lottery, they were able to prepare to put on a socially distanced show at less than half their usual capacity. 

SOPA Images via Getty Images
Members of the public walking past the Opera House theatre, which has been closed during Covid 19 pandemic.

Speaking prior to the latest announcement of the tiers, Theatre Director Sheena Wrigley said: “We’ve had to completely rethink our operation, so that’s been taking up a big chunk of our time.” Manchester Opera House is a commercial theatre, so it was not eligible for any government funding. 

With the show no longer able to go ahead, it’s not just the Opera House who will suffer.

“The restaurants and the bars around the theatres also really notice when we’re not open,” she says. “On a good night you could have 2000 people watching shows, and those people often go somewhere else first for a meal or for some drinks.”

Theatre is a massive part of the night time economy, which has severely suffered as a result of the pandemic.

On the bright side, this year hasn’t meant a premature curtain call for all pantomimes, and for theatres in Tier 2, the show will certainly go on.

The New Victoria Theatre in Woking and Qdos Entertainment will be putting on a socially distanced production of Robin Hood.

Craig Revel Horwood, who is playing the Sheriff of Nottingham says: “I’m delighted our producers have pulled out all the stops to make it happen. We’re following the latest guidelines regarding safety, distance and hygiene, but still managing to have fun.”

New Victoria Theatre
Craig Revel Horwood stars in Robin Hood at the New Victoria Theatre in Woking.

The show this year has been condensed into one single act to limit movement around the theatre. Craig says that rehearsals have been different, too. Cast members are taking separate breaks and keeping their distance both on and off stage. But, they’re still managing to keep some sense of normalcy, causing some socially distanced mischief to keep the Christmas spirit alive. 

Craig says the goal with this production is to “help the audience take a break from the difficulties this year has brought, to be with their loved ones and have a much-needed good time.” 

And, next year, Craig hopes the arts will be on “a firm track to recovery, with more people coming than ever before.

“Hopefully in good health and with this difficult year firmly behind us,” he says.