Will Suffolk theatres reopen in time for panto season?

Chris Clarkson and Britt Lenting will star in last year's pantomime, Sleeping Beauty, at Bury's Thea

Chris Clarkson and Britt Lenting will star in last year's pantomime, Sleeping Beauty, at Bury's Theatre Royal Picture: AARON WEIGHT - Credit: Archant

Theatre bosses in Suffolk fear panto season may be a wash out this year as they struggle to work out how to stage the traditional Christmas shows while adhering to social distancing rules.

Kraig Thornber as Hernia in last year's New Wolsey pantomime, Cinderella but will the show go ahead

Kraig Thornber as Hernia in last year's New Wolsey pantomime, Cinderella but will the show go ahead this year? Picture: New Wolsey Theatre

In theory, theatres can now reopen but in order to do so they need an audience - and a show.

At the moment nothing is rehearsed, cast and crew haven’t been able to get together in the same room because of social distancing regulations, and under current social distancing guidelines audience numbers would be slashed to around a third of capacity.

Theatre bosses are still unsure when they will be ready to reopen and some say they can’t even be 100% sure that panto is going to happen over Christmas.

Ivan Cutting, artistic director of Eastern Angles, says: “Every theatre wants to put on something for Christmas but at the moment it is impossible to plan. We would all rather do something than nothing but it has to be cost effective and the audience has to feel safe coming into the building.”

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The New Wolsey, Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, DanceEast and Eastern Angles are all still pinning their hopes on being able to stage something for Christmas but can’t say what or even when they will know whether or not they are going ahead.

A lot rests on the government emergency funding for theatres which is not expected to be announced until sometime in September.

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Owen Calvert-Lyons, artistic director at Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, says: “We are examining all the possibilities to try and make something happen but at the moment we don’t know exactly what. How can we have lots of young people up on the stage in our panto? How can we have a practical, socially distanced auditorium? What we really need is for the restrictions to be lifted but we are having to come up with other solutions.”

Brendan Keaney, artistic director with DanceEast, says that they are looking at staging a couple of pop-up performances over the Christmas period but nothing is set in stone. “We are waiting and looking at how things develop. We are also looking at perhaps staging a spring season but that is dependant on many things which are outside our control. Any announcement regarding spring will be made much closer to the time. We are used to working at least six months in advance but the new normal will be working more like six weeks in advance.”

The traditional family shows are expensive to stage but panto season is often the most lucrative time of year for theatres, with sell out performances right through the run that not only cover outgoings but also help bankroll theatres for the rest of the year.

Mr Cutting added that Eastern Angles may move their Christmas show to early in the New Year.

He said: “Nothing is decided yet but I feel that the New Year maybe a watershed moment and people may feel more comfortable going out after Christmas.”

A spokesman for The Ipswich Regent and Corn Exchange said that the theatres remain closed for the time being.

They added: “We are considering what the impact of the continued closure will be on this year’s panto.”

The New Wolsey is having a board meeting this week examining the options for Christmas and New Year. 2021 is supposed to be their 20th anniversary celebrations but festivities could be curtailed if we have a second wave.

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