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Kent pantomimes may not go ahead this year as Marlowe pleads for emergency funds

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Pantomimes across Kent might not go ahead this year if social distancing guidelines are left in place, prompting fears from production companies across the country.

The time-honoured Christmas tradition could be facing the threat of mass cancellation, as the industry grapples with how to operate under the rules if theatres are given the go-ahead to open.

Mother Goose, performed at The Marlowe Theatre in 2019
Mother Goose, performed at The Marlowe Theatre in 2019

Theatres are yet to receive a date from government as to when they can hope to to open their doors to the public, increasing the financial deficit for venues and producers alike.

But even if theatres were allowed to open, producers are stumped as to how productions could go ahead under social distancing rules.

Tom Swift has produced pantomimes in Thanet, Tonbridge and Gravesend under his company Wicked Productions, and has been a part of the county's creative scene for years.

He is concerned that the strict 2m rule would effectively stop big panto productions from being able to go ahead at all.

He said: "You just wouldn't be able to put on a show, it's as simple as that.

Mr Swift often performs in his productions too.
Mr Swift often performs in his productions too.

"It just can't happen if social distancing is part of theatre for a while, and the government know that, that's why they're staying quiet for now."

With pantomime productions often involving upwards of 70 people, including the cast, backstage and production crew, Mr Swift said the challenge of distancing everyone and still putting on a show would be a struggle without drastically reducing the size of the production.

He said: "If people are having to do pantos at Christmas under social distancing, they'll be doing a version that's very scaled down - it won't have as many cast members in it, it probably won't have kids in it, and it'll be very small.

"With track and trace, if one of the cast members were told via text that they have to self isolate then the whole show could be cancelled, so there's massive risk too.

"You can't lose a cast member during the Christmas period."

Mr Swift put on a production of Peter Pan last year at the EM Forster Theatre in Tonbridge
Mr Swift put on a production of Peter Pan last year at the EM Forster Theatre in Tonbridge

Mr Swift said social distancing could also force popular West End shows to restage entire sections of their productions, particularly in scenes where actors are required to be close.

He said: "I've got a friend who's the MD of the Tina Turner musical, and there's kissing scenes, dancing scenes, and that would all have to be changed.

"Then what do you do backstage? Some people have to share dressing rooms, sometimes up to six people."

Mr Swift estimates it costs around £250,000 to put on a pantomime, and if theatres are forced to reduce audience capacity it may not be financially viable.

It comes after The Marlowe Theatre, in Canterbury, teamed up with venues across the UK to plead with the government for emergency cash to keep their businesses alive.

The Marlowe Theatre closed in March as a result of Covid-19 precautions. Picture: Chris Davey.
The Marlowe Theatre closed in March as a result of Covid-19 precautions. Picture: Chris Davey.

The 1,200-capacity venue joined others in Birmingham, Newcastle, Norwich and Southampton, to appeal to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Arts Council England for the much-needed cash.

The group estimates they collectively lost 96% of revenue since performance spaces were ordered to close in March.

Julian Bird, chief executive of the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre, spoke at the DCMS committee and highlighted the importance of pantomime productions to theatres across the country.

He said: "To state the obvious, Christmas for theatres is absolutely essential.

"Pantomime, genuinely, is the number one time of year when people go to the theatre.

"They go in multi-generational family groups; theatres are full; it is most children’s first exposure to the theatre."

He also told the committee that theatres would need to know soon whether their pantomimes and other seasonal shows would be able to go ahead.

He said: "We need that in a timely fashion because most theatres have to make a decision around their Christmas production by early August."

Deborah Shaw chief executive of the Marlowe Theatre, said: "As independent charities reliant almost entirely on box office income and not in receipt of any core public funding, we’ve so far fallen between the gaps of available support, apart from the government’s Job Retention Scheme.

"We want to make the case that we are an important part of the national theatre ecology, supporting major companies to present work across the UK and, at the other end of the scale, nurturing and supporting freelance artists, craftspeople and emerging talent in our region."

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