Published: 15:37, 06 March 2021
| Updated: 15:42, 06 March 2021
A theatre which found itself facing fears of closure has bounced back for 2021, with its management team confirming its pantomime.
There were fears for the Hazlitt in Maidstone, when the council which owns the building decided to end its contact the Parkwood Theatres and bring the theatre back under direct control.
Thousands signed a petition calling for it to be saved and safeguarded for the future. It was feared the move was the first step to closing the arts centre for good.
In Janaury, Maidstone council reversed this and confirmed it would continue with Parkwood running the Hazlitt Arts Centre on its behalf.
Martin Cleverley, the Hazlitt's general manager, said the Prime Minister's 'roadmap' out of lockdown had now provided some certainty.
The 2021 panto is confirmed as Jack and the Beanstalk, with some of the cast from last year still in place.
"We still have a lead name celebrity to cast, but we have started this process," Mr Cleverley said.
There will also be the chance for children to audition for roles, but Mr Cleverley cautioned the days of getting hundreds of performers together at the arts centre would be on hold.
Jack and the Beanstalk is scheduled to run from Saturday, November 27-Saturday January 2.
Mr Cleverley added: "We are looking towards a May 17 re-opening, with a bit more normality returning by June 21.
"From April 12, we're hoping it will be possible for limited work with under 18s and the youth theatre."
Things get underway earlier than that with a show featuring singer-songwriters Tom Self and Darren Clark, which can be streamed on March 19.
Big names confirmed include comedians Jonathan Pie and Andy Parsons who arrive in September, and stand-up veteran Omid Djalili performs in October.
Maidstone council's review was prompted by the fact the theatre has been closed since March 2020 because of the pandemic.
The council has been continuing to pay Parkwood's fees of around £245,000 a year, although no shows have been put on.
The council owns the freehold of the Hazlitt Arts Centre, which includes the Exchange Studio, the Fourth Wall and the Graham Clarke Exhibition Gallery, but sold a long lease on the buildings to a third-party property company which has, in turn, sub-leased the Hazlitt Arts Centre back to the council on a 125-year lease.
When the council ran the theatre itself previously it was costing the borough around £600,000 a year. Parkwood's contract began in 2013. The company keeps the profit from any shows.
Maidstone council predicted it was facing at least a £1.6m shortfall in its own budget, thanks to Covid restrictions.
Mr Cleverley spoke of the worries those discussions sparked.
"Me and the team have been through a really rough year, not just because of the pandemic," Mr Cleverley added. "There was a time we thought we would be closed and everyone's jobs would be at risk.
"Everyone who works here has a real affection for the place and many of us have been involved with the Hazlitt for a long time. I have been here for 20 years."