Pantos still uncertain despite government rescue package

The New Wolsey, Ipswich is anxious to welcome back audiences after lockdown Picture by Lucy Taylor

The New Wolsey, Ipswich is anxious to welcome back audiences after lockdown Picture by Lucy Taylor Photography. - Credit: Archant

The government has unveiled a rescue package for the creative industries but despite this support, the fate of panto is still uncertain

Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds hopes to be welcoming audiences back to their panto this year Photo: T

Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds hopes to be welcoming audiences back to their panto this year Photo: Theatre Royal - Credit: Archant

East Anglia’s theatres, libraries and museums are breathing a huge sigh of relief following the announcement of the government’s £1.57 billion support package to “protect” the future of Britain’s arts industry.

However, even with the generous support package, the fate of this year’s panto season remains in the balance after culture secretary went on television saying that he would be surprised if pantomime’s went ahead in 2020.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, said: “I would love to be able to announce that pantos can return but I have to say it will be quite challenging to be able to get to that point.

“Because if you think about a panto, and we all love going to the panto for the joy of it, but it also supports local theatres, you’ve got granny through to grandchild all packed in together, you know how kids are encouraged to shout and scream at panto season, there’s lots of sort of interaction.

Eastern Angles Christmas show offers something for those who want a change from panto. The Mystery

Eastern Angles Christmas show offers something for those who want a change from panto. The Mystery of St Finnegans Elbow, Francesca Gosling and Alice Mottram Photo: Mike Kwasniak - Credit: Archant

“So I would love us to be able to do it. We’re working with Public Health England and others to see about mitigations but I just want to be a bit realistic about the challenges of getting us back to that point any time soon.”

At the moment the majority of Suffolk’s theatre companies – New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich; Regent Theatre, Ipswich; Eastern Angles; Red Rose Chain, Ipswich and Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds – are all still planning to stage Christmas shows but they will be subject to guidance from government experts.

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However, the government’s newly approved support programme – which is also available to Independent cinemas, heritage sites and music venues – is designed to keep companies and venues solvent during the period when they can’t generate enough ticket sales to balance the books.

The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds are having a double celebration because they have just reached their £50,000 target in their The Show Must Go On re-opening appeal. In four weeks the theatre’s supporters and audience members have raised £50,400 which will ensure the theatre’s doors will re-open once lockdown eases.

New artistic director Owen Calvert-Lyons said: “A huge thank you to everyone who donated to help us reach the £50,000 target of our The Show Will Go On! campaign. This money will help the Theatre Royal to survive the devastating impact of the corona virus. The support and love our community has shown us will not be forgotten.”

He is also hopeful that the government’s aid package will help freelance talent as well as bricks and mortar enterprises. “The arts sector was right on the brink of collapse, so this rescue package is very welcome news. Now we await the detail of how this fund will be distributed and a timescale for reopening. We need indicative dates for when we are able to open our doors for live performance and to know if this will happen in time for the crucial Christmas period.

“Our own plans for this year’s pantomime remain uncertain. This funding will help theatres across the country to survive until Christmas, but without the vital income from pantomimes and Christmas shows, the future of many theatres will remain in doubt. I welcome Oliver Dowden’s focus upon supporting cultural organisations which play a vital role in the heart of their community, but I also want to see this money reaching the freelance artists who are so vital to our industry.”

This view was echoed by Sarah Holmes at the New Wolsey who said that a timeline was now essential to allow them to plan. Tickets for the pantomime will remain on sale and they expect to stage their rock’n’roll pantomime unless instructed otherwise.

“We’re absolutely delighted that Oliver Dowden announced the support package for theatres, museums and galleries. What we need next are dates around which we can plan. Working towards an end date that we can’t yet see is incredibly difficult; we’ll only know the true impact of the support package when we know how long the closure is likely to be.”

Executive Director, Steve Mannix said that Colchester’s Mercury Theatre welcomed the news that the government was offering practical support to the creative arts sector.

“Yesterday’s Government announcement was very, very welcome indeed. After weeks of tirelessly campaigning to keep our industry afloat, the sector and its supporters have been heard, and while we’re not out of the woods, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

“There’s no doubt that the relief package will be a real lifeline not only for regional theatres like ourselves, but for the entire sector across all art-forms. I join my peers in looking forward to seeing a detailed description of how this funding will be distributed, hopefully alongside an update on when and how venues can start to reopen, so that we can plan properly and safely for our future.

“We at the Mercury are also in a unique position; we were mid-way through a largescale capital redevelopment project when lockdown began, so our plans for the future must not only factor in Government advice and funding, but also a now extended building timeline and additional costs for this project.

“The vital Government support package has arrived just in time, and we look forward to working in partnership with the Arts Council England and others to ensure an equitable and speedy distribution to allow us to reopen properly and safely for the benefit of artists and audiences alike.

“The financial support is an investment in the future economic success and prosperity of the nation. The sector currently earns more than £112 billion per year and had been growing at five times the speed of the wider economy. Last year the Mercury alone contributed more than £4m to the local economy of Colchester and North Essex.”

For Eastern Angles, their highly distinctive Christmas show, is an important fund-raiser for the rest of the year and is one of the few that doesn’t take the path to pantomime.

Co-founder and artistic director Ivan Cutting said: “Like the rain in a drought this must not get stored in the butts but allowed to drain into the soil to nourish our freelancers, audiences and community engagement. This will get paid back in dividends of applause, well-being and just plain hope.

“I’m not very good on the big numbers but we’ve been doing our bit with the Norfolk and Suffolk venues and now keen to make sure freelancers, small companies and rural touring gets its share of the cake.

“I know Oliver Dowden has questioned pantos, but I suspect he is really referring to the mega-theatres – and Christmas is five months away.”

Guidance for a phased return of the performing arts sectors is expected to be published by the Government shortly.

Mr Dowden said he understood the “grave challenges” facing the arts sector and that the investment demonstrated the Government’s “level of commitment” in supporting it.

“This money will help safeguard the sector for future generations, ensuring arts groups and venues across the UK can stay afloat and support their staff whilst their doors remain closed and curtains remain down.”

The announcement has been welcomed by various industry leaders, including Arts Council England chairman Sir Nicholas Serota, who said the package was a “very significant investment”.

Julian Bird, chief executive of the Society of London Theatre & UK Theatre, said it “hugely welcomed” the funding.

“Venues, producers and the huge workforce in the theatre sector look forward to clarity of how these funds will be allocated and invested, so that artists and organisations can get back to work as soon as possible,” he said.

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