"...Of course, we missed last Christmas because of the pandemic and with infection rates still high we are not sure if we should book this year for Jack and the Beanstalk?" - Kefi, Hackney
Dear Kefi, Your dilemma is one facing theatre-goers and panto lovers across the country. They want to return to the theatre and the annual festive family treat but unless someone out there has a crystal ball it’s hard to know what the winter might bring. Uncertainty is not a friend of theatre. But it is always nice to have something to look forward to, and the Hackney Panto is certainly that.
What I do know is that UK theatres are hugely reliant on ticket income over the festive period and if revenues are down they won’t be full of beans moving into 2022 and it will significantly impact what they will be able to produce over the coming year. The signs are not good. A collapse in school and group bookings means that, as a recent survey found, theatres have “a beanstalk to climb to return to 2019/20 levels.” Actually, they said mountain not beanstalk, but I couldn’t resist.
In part this is a question of confidence on the part of theatre-goers. And theatres can help by recognizing that although the vaccine has taken some of the risk out of theatre-going, not everybody has the same levels of comfort—or indeed the same family circumstances- and that affects their willingness or not to take a seat in a crowded auditorium. The worry is that regular theatre goers will lose the habit of theatre-going. That would be disastrous for theatre but just think too of the diminution of joy that would bring. Particularly this Christmas.
Clive Rowe and Debbie Kurup in Jack And the Beanstalk at Hackney Empire 2015. Photo by Alastair Muir.
How can theatres help accommodate those who are more wary? Designated socially distanced performances are a good place start and some theatres around the country are providing just that even though it hits them in the bottom line where it hurts.
Some theatres have good ventilation and air filtration systems and those that do should shout about it more loudly. I’d like to see SOLT and UK theatre run campaigns (as is happening in New York as theatre returns) that celebrate the joy and lift that going back to the theatre has given the thousands who have already taken the plunge.
I reckon it would also help if theatres offered clearer guidance over whether they do or do not expect people to wear masks. There are potential flashpoints when some want Covid precautions rigidly enforced, and others don’t. Sadly that is because mask wearing has become politicised rather than seen as something that helps protect all. No questions asked returns policies also encourage people to book.
In the end you have to decide what level of risk is acceptable to you and your family. You say how much pleasure the panto has given you over the years and many will feel the same and that Christmas just won’t be Christmas if they don’t get to shout “he’s behind you.” But only you and your family can decide if you are up for taking the risk. Maybe if you don’t go this year, you could pay forward by booking for Xmas 2022 as soon as tickets become available.
Cover image: Clive Rowe in the Hackney Empire's 2015 production of Jack and the Beanstalk. Photo by Robert Workman.