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Fears Marlowe Theatre panto in Canterbury may be cancelled

The future of the county's top Christmas panto hangs in the balance with a crunch decision expected next month on whether to press ahead with the show.

Producers of the money-spinner at Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury say they are weighing up the financial risks of staging the popular production in the wake of continuing restrictions.

Going ahead with the panto - which attracts up to 100,000 people throughout its run - could leave the theatre and firm behind it massively out of pocket should another wave spark a second lockdown.

But cancelling it would heap more pressure on the Marlowe, which has already lost £2 million of income after being forced to axe dozens of shows because of the crisis.

Paul Hendy, of Evolution Productions, which has staged the last 14 pantomimes at the Marlowe, says he and theatre bosses are likely to have to make a decision next month on whether Jack and The Beanstalk will go ahead in November.

"Ordinarily, pre-production would have already been well underway because it's a long process," he told the Gazette.

"These are big, expensive, time-consuming productions with the casting, set designs and marketing.

Pantomime dame Ben Roddy as Mother Goose in last year's production at the Marlowe Theatre
Pantomime dame Ben Roddy as Mother Goose in last year's production at the Marlowe Theatre

"If we spend all that money and there's a second spike and lockdown, then we'll be in trouble.

"So unless we get some clear guidance about when theatres can reopen pretty soon, then we will have to drop the show, which would be terribly sad for the theatre and Canterbury itself.

"You really can't imagine Christmas without the pantomime because it's vitally important for a lot of people - even more so now in a year when families have been kept apart.

"We're trying to stay optimistic but unless we get that information from the government, then we will have to make a decision, certainly in August, although we don't have an exact date set in stone."

The chief executive of the Marlowe Theatre Trust, Deborah Shaw, says it is budget-planning for both outcomes.

Deborah Shaw, chief executive of the Marlowe
Deborah Shaw, chief executive of the Marlowe

"Pantomime is a big part of every theatre's year and a key contributor to income, so to lose it would have an impact," she said.

"But part of this whole process is thinking the unthinkable.

"The panto is currently built into our rescue plan but we are budget planning for both scenarios and not pre-empting the decision.

"It's complicated because it's a moving picture and we are expecting more guidance from the government soon.

"The pantomime is a joint production between the theatre and the show producers and we speak as one.

"We will have to make the decision on whether or not to go ahead next month, unless the government makes that decision for us."

The Marlowe Theatre
The Marlowe Theatre

But there was some good news for Marlowe bosses this week as the Government announced a £1.57 billion bail-out for theatres, museums and galleries.

Chief executive Deborah Shaw says she was “mightily relieved” after learning of the grants on Sunday.

As yet, the theatre does not know exactly how much aid it will receive, but Ms Shaw hopes it will be enough to relieve some of the pressure it is suffering.

"The existential threat we’ve been living with - that the whole national theatre infrastructure might be destroyed in this crisis - has been lifted," she said.

"We can now get on with our plans for a staged reopening of the Marlowe and building to a successful future.

"Of course, enormous challenges remain as we face an extended closure period and what might be several years before we build back to a full recovery.

"The trust has lost about £2 million in income, although we have been able to make some savings with things like pay cuts."

But Ms Shaw warns there could be some redundancies among the theatre’s near-200 workforce, of which more than 90% are currently furloughed.

Many shows have been rebooked for 2021, and she insists the venue will reopen, but initially in a phased away with some outdoor and smaller space performances.

“We’ve got a bumper programme in 2021, we just have to get to it...”

"The Marlowe is resilient and we will reopen because we have an important role to play in entertaining people.

"We’ve got a bumper programme in 2021, we just have to get to it."

The big barrier for theatres is the continuing rules around social distancing.

For productions to break even, let alone turn a profit, the main auditorium of the Marlowe needs 80% occupancy.

"It would not be economically profitable for us to have empty seats between theatre-goers."

"The industry is looking at how it might work but it would just not be economically profitable for us to have empty seats between theatre-goers to keep them apart, said Ms Shaw.

"We need more clarity from the government and I know the Culture Secretary was in the West End recently to see the problem for himself with theatres."

But she said they would not be putting screens between seats.

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