Published: 09:45, 04 December 2017
Panto wars have descended on the county as a disagreement leaves a bitter taste between two productions in the same town.
This Christmas, Maidstone will host two professionally-produced pantomimes for the first time.
Yet the production of Peter Pan opening at the town’s TV studios could have been left on the cutting room floor after finding itself without a venue for the show, despite bosses having signed £140,000 of contracts with suppliers.
Danny Wright, owner of Vexx Group, decided to take his events and entertainment business into the panto world last year.
He held meetings with Serco, which runs Mote Hall on behalf of Maidstone Borough Council, to explore the possibility of hosting a second show in the town.
The council hosts the town’s long-running panto at its Hazlitt Theatre.
After positive discussions, Mr Wright believed he had reached an agreement with the council to hold the production in Mote Hall at the Maidstone Leisure Centre.
He said: “We thought it would be a great idea to put on a large scale pantomime that doesn’t just offer great comedy and slapstick but goes above and beyond.
“We were thinking West End-style effects, with Cirque du Soleil-type stuff over the audience.
“We were trying to create more of an experience.”
Believing he had a venue, Mr Wright knuckled down for two months of panto preparations, securing former Blue singer Antony Costa as his production’s star.
Then, everything changed.
Council officials told Vexx it had to find a new venue, fearing pantos at both Mote Hall and the Hazlitt Theatre created a conflict of interests for the local authority, which owns both buildings. The company had already committed to £140,000 of spending with suppliers.
Mr Wright said: “We had signed contracts with scenery hiring firms, the audio-visual company and celebrity agencies, and all of a sudden the venue was pulled.
“I thought ‘oh my God, what’s going to happen?’”
Fortunately, Mr Wright was able to call upon his father-in-law Cllr David Naghi, the deputy mayor of Maidstone. Through this, he got a meeting with Geoff Miles, the chairman of Maidstone Studios.
“They welcomed us with open arms,” he said. “It’s a great thing for the studios because it is a quiet period for them.
“It has been a blessing in disguise.
“It’s a more established venue and somewhere people are excited to go to.”
Now with X Factor finalists Amelia Lily and Lloyd Daniels as its stars, the Vexx production of Peter Pan will take over the site’s two largest spaces, Studios 1 and 2, with the latter transformed into Neverland, which Mr Wright describes as “very Harry Potter World”.
Yet his close shave with the council has left a bitter taste for his company, which will employ 80 to 90 people when the pantomime is up and running.
He said: “We were hoping to work with the council. We were going for a completely different market with higher pricing but this follow-through has upset us a little bit.
“It has turned into panto wars when it didn’t have to be.”
Those panto wars, ironically, appear to have proved beneficial to the Hazlitt’s show, Cinderella, starring TV personality Rustie Lee, which has reported an increase in ticket sales so far this year.
Mr Wright claims council officials are preventing his company from marketing its show in certain areas of the town.
He said: “We have a problem with Maidstone Borough Council. It’s not like they are saying no but we never get anything back from them.
“If they supported it they would see it’s a good thing.”
Maidstone Borough Council refutes any suggestion it prevented Mr Wright from marketing his production.
Cllr David Pickett, chairman of the heritage, culture and leisure committee at Maidstone Borough Council, said initial discussions were held to talk about the possibility of another pantomime taking place at Mote Hall.
However, he said “no firm agreement was reached or contract signed”.
Cllr Pickett added: “As a council we welcome diversity and healthy competition within the borough as it leads to greater choice and value for visitors and residents.
“We hope that both shows are well supported and continue to grow in popularity.”
Peter Pan runs at Maidstone TV Studios from December 15 to January 6. Details at maidstonepanto.com. Cinderella runs at the Hazlitt Theatre, Maidstone, from December 1 to New Year’s Eve. Details at parkwoodtheatres.co.uk
Few other Kent towns have competing pantomimes and shows.
Those that do say a “healthy but complementary competition” is the key to them all thriving in close proximity.
Tunbridge Wells is home to the Assembly Hall Theatre panto and the Trinity Theatre, which holds an annual “Christmas Show”, while nearby Tonbridge has its own production.
Anthony Pickthall, sales and marketing director of the Assembly Hall Theatre, said ticket sales at the venue are 22% ahead of the same time last year.
He said: “We welcome more competition to add value to the existing Christmas offer for Tunbridge Wells. The population for the catchment area offers 2.4 million theatre attenders.”
There is no business sense in holding two pantomimes in some Kent towns, according to Jamie Alexander Wilson, producer at Those Magic Beans, which is putting on pantos at the Stag in Sevenoaks and the Woodville in Gravesend.
He said: “Maidstone is a large county town, and the Hazlitt is a beautiful but very small venue in comparison to the size of the town.
“With a population of more than 100,000 people, I imagine there is potential for business to sustain two shows in Maidstone.
“In Sevenoaks, our show usually sells just under 20,000 tickets, and the population of the town is around 18,000, which means we have a very strong and loyal audience in the area.
“If someone wanted to bring a second pantomime to the town, short of pitching a tent in Knole Park, there would be nowhere for them to stage it.”
Dartford’s Orchard Theatre attracts more than 30,000 theatre goers every year to its pantomime, with its closest competition in Gravesend.
Marketing and PR officer Michelle King said: “Year on year we set record-breaking sales.
“This year’s production of Cinderella has already sold over 25,000 tickets and we are on course have another record-breaking year.
“The Orchard Theatre Dartford has built up a loyal audience and reputation for putting on a high-quality production, featuring a star cast, bringing thousands of families to the theatre from not only Dartford, but also from across the South East.”
The Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, which holds 1,200 people, aims to sell 100,000 tickets for Peter Pan, which would make it a record-breaker.
Acting theatre director Paula Gillespie said the venue would “welcome any new cultural activity in Canterbury” and “are very happy to work with other organisations to ensure that we are offering choice and quality to all of the community”.
An earlier version of this article stated Vexx Group met with Maidstone Borough Council to discuss hosting a pantomime at Mote Hall. Vexx Group actually met with Serco, which runs Mote Hall on behalf of Maidstone Borough Council. We are happy to make this clarification.
Every morning at 10am we play you an hour of tunes from the 90s. We call it, #WeLoveThe90s.
Play 'Say It' with Garry and Laura on kmfm Breakfast and you could win £1,000!
Wake up to kmfm Breakfast with Garry and Laura - it's Kent's alarm call.