At a time when theatres are only gradually returning to business, with socially distanced audiences, restrictions on bar sales and uncertainty around funding applications, venues around the country are facing the same question. To paraphrase The Sound Of Music – “how do you solve a problem like pantomime?”
For many venues, including Greenwich Theatre, the annual pantomime is the cornerstone of the whole operation, and the show sits at the heart of local festive celebrations.
A family Christmas isn’t complete for many without a trip to the local theatre for a dose of festive entertainment – but the very nature of the shows, with elaborate sets and costumes, live music and large casts, special effects and pyrotechnics, mean that the high income is inherently linked to a large up-front expenditure.
Spending that amount of money when you can only sell a third (at best) of the seats in the theatre simply isn’t viable, so the vast majority of pantomimes around the country have been postponed.
So what do you do? Most theatres have simply transferred this year’s show to next Christmas, so that anyone who has already booked can transfer their tickets and retain the same dates or seats next year.
For us at Greenwich, that seems like a long time to wait for the annual treat, so we have worked with Andrew Pollard, Steve Markwick and the rest of the team to come up with a version of the show, The Queen Of Hearts, that can run at Easter 2021 instead – but we have also put together a package of festive theatrical entertainment for this year that I think will rival any plans anywhere else in the country.
At the heart of the programme I will be directing an all-new family show – a thrilling stage adaptation of the classic children’s novel The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase, running through December, suitable for the whole family and presented with cast and audience all socially distanced.
I had been concerned about a lack of atmosphere in a theatre where the audience have to spread out, but we reopened Greenwich Theatre last week with a performance of Steve Richards’ Rock n Roll Politics, and the audience of almost 100 people loved it – so atmosphere clearly won’t be a problem at Christmas.
During Christmas week we also welcome European Arts Company back to Greenwich with their solo adaptation of A Christmas Carol, recreating the readings of the novel that Dickens himself performed up and down the country.
Finally, on December 19, we are also set to host a welcome return for Comedy Club 4 Kids, bringing some of the best live stand-up comedians together for a morning performance of family comedy.
This year has undoubtedly been the hardest in our history. Greenwich Theatre has experienced challenges over the years, but they have always been specific – changes in funding levels, repair periods for the building, changes in personnel.
This year has been different. Never knowing how long we would have to be closed, when audiences would be comfortable returning or how long government support packages would last have made it almost impossible to navigate a year in which we have lost an estimated £750,000.
However, with the support of our audiences and an early emergency grant from Arts Council England, we now find ourselves able to open the doors again.
“We still have a long road back to full operation, but this ambitious festive season should help us reclaim our reputation as one of the most resilient and creative theatres in the country.
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