Published: 17:26, 23 September 2021
| Updated: 11:15, 24 September 2021
After 18 months of cancellations and empty seats, theatre in Maidstone is back and this year the Hazlitt Theatre is kicking off the festive season with its latest pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk.
This year's production is more significant than ever as it marks the revival of the Earl Street venue since its future was thrown into doubt last year.
In November Maidstone Borough Council put its relationship with operator Parkwood Leisure under review.
Discussions held in private then led to the council deciding to take back control - prompting fears the theatre and associated facilities could be closed for good.
But thousands of people leapt to safeguard it and Parkwood Theatres, which runs Hazlitt, received £620,000 in April to spend across its four venues.
Martin Cleverley, the general manager at the Hazlitt Theatre, who is also producing and directing the panto, says the fact that shows are back in Maidstone is 'not only a relief, but a really good day to celebrate'.
He added: "During the lockdown there were only two of us kept off furlough and it felt like a very lonely place.
"It's great now to be bringing audiences back because I know the value and importance of panto, we just hope the audiences flock back in.
"There was a moment where it looked bleak for the future of the Hazlitt but we have come through that.
"A major fact was the near 9,000 people who signed the petition to keep us open and we were astonished with the response.
"To close down a theatre in the county town in my opinion would have been a very sad day but the fact I'm sat here for the 2021 panto launch is great."
In 2019, a record 19,500 people watched the production and this year, Mr Cleverley is hoping it will be even bigger and better despite the lack of a celebrity name, a change that was brought in intentionally.
He added: "We have purposely decided not to use a big name this year to see how it affects our customers.
"It was a tough decision to make but we have got to be mindful of our financial commitment to the show and we thought this was the year where we could try something that we have been wanting to try for so long.
"Do people come to see the panto for the celebs, or do they see it because it's a great family day out in the centre of town?
"We made the decision and if it backfires then we will learn from it."
But what can you expect from the show? Francesca Pim who plays Fairy says it will be full of 'sparkles and magic'.
She added: "It means everything to be back on stage.
"I absolutely love regional theatre and I think it's so important for local communities to come together to support their theatres.
"It will be full of family fun, it will be sparkly with happy toe-tapping tunes and you will leave with a smile on your face."
Harry Revell who plays the leading role of Jack used to do amateur dramatics at the Hazlitt with the Stage Theatre Society.
He says the show will provide the perfect escape adding: "Expect a lot of adventure, fun, silliness and a lot of singing.
"It's just so nice to bring theatre back and I'm hoping a lot of people will get behind it."
Jack and The Beanstalk comes to Maidstone on November 27 and will continue until January 2.