London Panto 2020: Will the Show Go On this Christmas?

Pantomime season is a huge part of Christmas, but as Covid-19 continues to hold us in its grip, it looks like panto is off this year. Or is it…?

Lead image: Car Park Panto

When Covid-19 forced us into lockdown in March, not many of us thought that the pandemic would result in Christmas being cancelled. And while some of the festivities may yet be salvaged, panto season is pretty much off.

Hackney Empire, Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch and Theatre Royal Stratford East – four of the biggest pantomimes in London – jointly announced the postponement of their 2020 pantos in the middle of summer.

The production process for such a large-scale show as a panto would have begun at the start of August. Without an announced date from the Government on when theatre performances could resume, the theatres were forced to pull the plug, and have now postponed their pantos until winter 2021.

Hackney Empire in particular runs one of the most talked about pantos in the capital, and its postponement is a real blow for the industry. On 30 September, pantomime dames marched through the West End to Parliament Square to demand more support for the theatre industry from the government.

Why is panto important?

Pantomimes are not only a huge deal for the community – last year the four theatres’ pantos were enjoyed by over 145,000 people, including over 40,500 schoolchildren, many of whom would have been experiencing theatre for the first time – a lot of theatres also make most of their money from panto season.

Fortunately, many theatres have been able to rely on the generosity of its patrons to save them from ruin, with the #SaveHackneyEmpire crowdfunding campaign raising more than £115,000 for the 120-year old venue. But the situation is still disastrous for the countless freelance artists, from writers and directors to designers and technicians, not to the new talent that often make their professional debuts in panto.

Will there be any panto this year?

So will there be any panto in London this year? Not as you know it, but never say never. The rise in popularity of drive-in events has spawned a new kind of panto, coming to a car park near you soon… well, hopefully. Car Park Party, which toured comedy, theatre and live music shows nationally this summer, has launched the Car Park Panto, where families can get into the festive spirit from the comfort and safety of their own car.

‘The rise in popularity of drive-in events has spawned a new kind of panto, coming to a car park near you soon… well, hopefully’

Created in partnership with the Birmingham Stage Company and Horrible Histories, Car Park Panto’s Horrible Christmas offers its own unique take on the festive season. From Victorian villains to Medieval monks, Puritan parties to Tudor treats, this hair-raising adventure through the history of Christmas sees Charles Dickens, Oliver Cromwell, King Henry VIII and St Nicholas all join forces to save the festive season!

No dates have been announced for London yet, but we remain optimistic, as the full line-up has not yet been made public. So far, it looks like the closest it will be coming to the capital is Chelmsford and Reading. But we remain optimistic that, even if Car Park Panto doesn’t park up near us, one of the many drive-in cinemas that popped up in London over the summer will have the means to attempt something similar.

So, Easter panto is a thing now…

Still, even if it doesn’t come together, Greenwich Theatre, which puts on a hugely popular panto every year, has announced that it will be offering up an Easter panto in 2021, meaning you don’t have to wait quite so long to get your fix.

Writer, director and pantomime dame extraordinaire Andrew Pollard has taken on The Queen Of Hearts for this extraordinary Easter panto, running from 30 March-25 April 2021.

‘This show is truly one for all the family,’ said James Haddrell, Greenwich Theatre’s artistic and executive director. ‘As a team we spent a long time debating the right title for this unique Easter pantomime and rather than settling on one of the most performed titles, we decided that maybe this was the time for something completely new.’

At least there’s The Nutcracker…

So does that mean nothing will be happening at Hackney Empire over the holidays? Not at all. The team is working on a festive programme that will be operating on a smaller scale, but will be ‘just as magical’.

Plus, in other good news, The Royal Albert Hall has announced its festive programme for Christmas 2020, which includes the venue’s famous carol concerts, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Choral Society and National Youth Choirs of Great Britain, and The Nutcracker, performed by Birmingham Royal Ballet and adapted for these extraordinary times.

The Royal Albert Hall sold 121,229 tickets across last year’s Christmas season, but this year there will be just 36,000 tickets available in total.

‘It remains the case that socially-distanced performances are financially unviable in the long term, [but] we are opening because I firmly believe this is what the country needs’

‘It remains the case that socially-distanced performances are financially unviable in the long term,’ said Craig Hassall, CEO of the Royal Albert Hall. ‘Although this model is not sustainable with such reduced capacities, we are opening because I firmly believe this is what the country needs.

‘It is an investment into our future – to protect the jobs of our highly skilled staff, to stimulate the local economy and the wider arts ecosystem, and to fulfil significant audience demand.

‘Christmas has always been a time of great celebrations at the Royal Albert Hall, where people have come together since 1871 – from Vera Lynn at the end of the Blitz, to HM The Queen’s first public Christmas address. It is essential for us to carry on this spirit in what has been a year of disruption.’