THE OLD adage that the show must go on has, for the first time in theatre’s history, been proved wrong.
This Christmas, there will be no ‘behind you’ and ‘oh no it isn’t’ being shouted in auditoriums across the country: pantomimes across the country are being postponed and move to 2021 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The festive treat is almost impossible to hold under Covid-secure conditions. The auditorium is full of excited children who engage with the onstage action at the tops of their voices. The schedule is demanding, limiting cleaning time, and annual panto-flu a risk.
Add in audience uncertainty, a worry that there would be a reduced number of seats, and the fears that someone, be it cast, junior ensemble, or production team, test positive for coronavirus, shutting the theatre down for at least 14 days and you can quickly see how hard it will be for any producer to take the risk and insist that the panto goes ahead.
Last week, Imagine Theatre, which produces pantomime for Reading Arts, announced the suspension of Beauty and the Beast — its planned show for Christmas 2020. It will star CBeebies legend Justin Fletcher and his sidekick as the dame, Paul Morse. Both have agreed to appear in the rearranged dates in December 2021.
Producer Steve Boden said that it was the right thing to do, adding that the team have spoken with other panto producers across the country, all coming to same decisions.
“We have to make difficult decisions now to safeguard the future,” he said.
“There is an ecosystem. There’s such a family around the shows. Carpenters, seamstresses, props, transport … all of these people are impacted by the decision to postpone. The ripple effect of this will be felt for some time.”
He added that had the shows gone ahead, and team members contracted Covid, “It could wipe out the entire panto production. These are the decisions we had to consider.”
Surely the feeling among the Imagine team must be low? “We’re determined,” Steve says.
“We’ve furloughed the team bar three, but we’re able to talk together once a week to keep in touch.
“We know we will get through this. The art form that is panto will evolve, ready for the next chapter.”
Steve is hopeful that there will be some kind of show this year, in whatever form it takes.
“The three of us are pushing forward, looking at alternative options.
“We’re looking for positives and this can shape the way in which we engage in the future.
“We’re exploring online provision for that, what we can develop and strengthen on the back of this.
“We’re feeling incredibly excited about the opportunity and to realise the challenges this presents.”
He adds: “We’re suspending what we love, and doing something very different in the short term.
“We’re very clear that postponement is a bitter pill to swallow, but we don’t want to leave Reading and the surrounding areas without any seasonal entertainment.”
Steve is pleased that both Justin and Paul are on board for next year’s revised Beauty and the Beast: “They have been very supportive.
“We all agree that we didn’t want to cancel completely.
“We’ve postponed and it will all be there next year.
“Both said, ‘Of course we’ll be there’. It might be 12 months later than planned, but they will be there.”
It’s not the only support Imagine has received: Steve says: “We’ve had nothing but warm messages of support and complete understanding. It makes such a difference. People are really coming together.”
Imagine has built up enough of a reserve to keep it going through these lean times, and Steve is hopeful that the Government-announced funding for the arts will also help.
“We have to batten down the hatches,” he warns, “help is on the horizon from the Government, but we’re not sure how that will be distributed.”
Pantomime isn’t just the first experience of watching theatre that some children have, it’s also the first time that they’ll get on stage too. Imagine has a tradition of open auditions for youngsters who want to join their
chorus line and auditions would have taken place this weekend. That’s now on hold.
“This is a highlight for many children,” Steve says.
“We look forward to them, they are important to youngsters, and we’re acutely aware that it’s important to the children. We welcome 200 of them every year.
“We can announce that the audition dates for children next year in Reading will be Sunday, July 25.”
Steve is also sanguine about the postponement.
At the end of Cinderella’s run, he was looking forward to the challenges that 2020 would bring.
But no one expected that to be a virus that brought the world to a standstill.
“You couldn’t write this. People would just look at you and think you were mad,” he said.
“But it’s circumstance that’s preventing pantomime from taking place this year, rather than neglect.
“There is comfort in that no one has done anything wrong.”