What’s going on? Sladen argues that, paradoxically, the situation is so dire that for some venues and producers, it’s better to do something than nothing: “You get the sense that they’re saying, ‘It’s so bad this year, we’ll be happy to break even’.” The casts are smaller, the shows shorter. “It’s small acts of defiance,” he says. “Everyone knows the show could get cancelled the day before [swift, automatic refunds are being widely factored in] but there has to be hope. Otherwise these theatres will be dead for over a year and audiences lost.”
Nottingham Playhouse announced its show even as the city was going back into tighter restrictions. “We’re determined to do it,” says Stephanie Sirr, chief executive. “It’s not going to make any money, but doing it keeps faith with the relationship we have with the public. People need family-friendly fun, it’s health-giving. The value is more than the financial risk. It’s a morale boost to the city – we’re saying ‘Don’t despair!’.”
Panto has long been known as the theatrical goose that lays golden eggs. The Stage calculated that in the 10-week festive period in 2015, there were more than 3 million panto admissions, with receipts of £58.6 million. This year, it looks like there are going to be around a third of the normal number of productions.
Trends are already detectable – Cinderella (logistically challenging) is trailing in popularity for once. “Sleeping Beauty is at the top – perhaps something to do with Operation Sleeping Beauty,” Sladen notes. “Certainly, Rapunzel is suddenly up there – what better isolation story is there?” “What really excites me is that panto might get satirical and topical again,” he adds, also noting an explosion of pantos streamed live or recorded to be watched on demand (16 in all), including a new phenomenon this year: the bespoke, home-viewing pantomime.
The poster-boy for this new form is actor and director Peter Duncan, of Blue Peter presenting fame, who has gone the full hog with a lavish, lockdown-referencing version of Jack and the Beanstalk, self-financed and filmed in his back garden in south London, involving a cast and crew of almost 30.
When I drop in on him in the closing stages of the three-week shoot he is dressed in panto dame rig-out – pink regency wig, cupcake motif dress and colourful maquillage – and overseeing the ruinously messy slosh scene with Jack (Sam Ebenezer) and the Squire (Ian Talbot). Elsewhere the panto cow (part occupied by his sister Julia) lumbers on the lawn and there’s a sound engineer holed up in the greenhouse.