Yorkshire's theatres fear for make-or-break pantomimes amid lockdown uncertainty

It is a seasonal fixture that for many is as traditional as Christmas itself.

Middle Child Theatre's 2019 panto The Little Mermaid. Photo credit: Sarah Beth.
Middle Child Theatre's 2019 panto The Little Mermaid. Photo credit: Sarah Beth.

But although the pantomime period is still almost half a year away, theatres in Yorkshire are already anxious about whether they will be able host the productions, which for a number of venues are make-or-break features of the calendar.

Closed during the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, theatres say they are still waiting for clear Government guidance on when and how to reopen.

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Norwich Theatre Royal became the first to call off its pantomime, while the UK’s biggest pantomime producer Qdos, based in Scarborough, has told the BBC it will decide by August 3 whether its 34 shows across the country can go ahead.

Katie Town, executive director at Theatre Royal Wakefield, which is run as a charity, is desperately hoping the venue can survive and says that pantomime season is vital. Currently all its shows up to mid-September are cancelled and its pantomime production of Beauty and the Beast is due to begin on November 19.

Miss Town said: “It’s a really vital part of our annual year. It’s one of the times we make the most contributions to our work and it subsidises the rest of our activity throughout the year. We’re a charity without any public subsidies so being able to generate revenue is vital.”

She added: “We know that that’s a really important time for our local audiences and it’s part of Wakefield traditions. There are people who come every Boxing Day or New year’ Eve and that’s part of their annual tradition.

“That first taste of theatre, there’s something so joyous, the pantomime is a really good way of getting kids [interested in] theatre and performing arts. It would be such a shame if that was lost.”

The theatre has room for 499 audience members, but assuming people are sat two metres apart, even in family groups, it may only be able to host 100 after reopening, she said.

Miss Town, 39, highlighted a study by the UK Theatre organisation suggesting that without Government investment in the sector, 70 per cent of performance arts venues will be closed by Christmas.

Rozzy Knox, maternity cover executive director of Middle Child Theatre in Hull, said: “Financially, it’s not going to break us but it’s a really big part of what makes up our audience and what gives us value in the city of Hull.”

Pantomime season is also “massive” for the York Theatre Royal, says executive director Tom Bird, 37, and it costs a lot to produce. He said: “We have to be fairly certain we can get the numbers that we need to pay back that investment before we can commit to that investment, otherwise we’re endangering the theatres.”

This year’s production, Cinderella, which is meant to begin on December 4, is a departure from the venue’s past performances as, citing a decline in audiences, it parted company with veteran pantomime dame Berwick Kaler, who then joined up with the Grand Opera House.

Mr Bird said: “That was a tough call and it was quite controversial. For that reason it’s frustrating. We were reopening with this new production of Cinderella - which is still on sale and may still open - it was a big moment for us before Covid came along.

“Pantomime is massive for us. We’re talking pretty much half the box office for a year.”

But he said it “costs a lot as well as making a lot”.

“If you jump and make that investment in the panto and for whatever reason it can’t happen, then we’re in trouble.”

He expects to make a decision by early August about whether to run the production, as did Miss Knox, whose company is planning a “rock n roll pantomime”.

Mr Bird wished to remind people that the theatre is still busily involved in community projects, and wanted to thank those who had raised £130,000 in donations and credits for future performances.

A Government spokesperson said:"We are clear that we want to get the performing arts fully back up and running safely as soon as possible and are working closely with the sector on a phased approach, guided by public health and medical experts."