THE panto season could be behind us already as it looks increasingly less likely theatres will be able to stage festive productions this year

Four of London’s biggest pantomimes have been scrapped due to the uncertainty over when theatres will reopen during the coronavirus pandemic.

Shows at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, the Hackney Empire, Theatre Royal Stratford East and Essex’s Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch have all called time on their festive offerings this year.

It has led to concerns that regional theatres such as the Towngate in Basildon and the Cliffs Pavilion in Southend will soon have no choice but to follow suit.

If the curtain is drawn on the 2020 pantomime season, the council-owned Towngate Theatre could be hardest hit as the show accounts for more than half of the theatre’s annual revenue.

The venue is due to host its production of Beauty and the Beast from November 25 and as usual will star favourites Simon Fielding and Sophie Ladds.


Fielding has turned the fortunes of the theatre around since he began writing, producing and starring in the annual pantomime since 2006. Since then each year the panto has broken box office records and won prestigious industry awards.

Simon Scott-Pearce, theatre Manager of Towngate said so far the panto is still set to take place, but admitted that things could change: “We completely understand any concerns our audiences may have with regards to attending our pantomime this year,” he said.

“At this moment, Beauty and the Beast is still scheduled to go ahead as planned. The Towngate will continue to follow Government guidelines and adhere to the advice and rules with regards to social distancing.

"The health and safety of our audiences and the Towngate staff is of utmost importance, and we will only proceed with the show if it is completely safe to do so.

"If new safety procedures are implemented which will affect attending a performance, we shall inform our audiences at the earliest opportunity with all the necessary information required.

“If our situation changes in the future and we have no alternative option but to postpone Beauty and the Beast until 2021, our hard-working team will contact all bookers directly to explain our situation and the options available.”

Panto regular Gemma Waldron, 45, from Laindon has been taking her children to see the Towngate Christmas pantomime since they were tots. “That was 15- years- ago and we still go every year as a family.

"It’s just not Christmas without seeing Simon bounding about on the stage,” she said.

“To be honest I will be absolutely gutted if it is cancelled but I don’t see how they can possibly stage it with all of these strict guidelines.”

Arts leader Vin Harrop, from Billericay, who has worked in the theatre industry all his life and managed the theatres predecessor, the Basildon Arts Centre had similar sentiments: “I just don't know whether it is practical given the time scale,” he said.

“If Andrew Lloyd Webb cannot get all the work he has done to convert the London Palladium passed by the health authorities, including spaced seating, self-disinfecting door knobs and a sprinkler system, I cannot see how the likes of the Towngate and the Cliffs Pavilion can.

"The real problem is the self-distancing of the audience and the singers on stage. So, I would say, the pandemic has killed off this year's panto season.

"If theatres are willing to take a risk with social distancing reducing the capacity to at least one third, then it might just happen but the theatre will be running at a loss whereas the panto season income usually keeps the theatre running for the whole year.

“My predictions are that the Towngate will remain closed over Christmas 2020. This was one reason why I tried to encourage them to stage shows outdoors in Gloucester Part, but that was met with a wall of silence. At least that way they would keep entertainment alive and give Basildon people something to do and kept the theatre staff up to speed.”

Meanwhile the Cliffs Pavilion in Southend is due to stage Cinderella from December 12 onwards.

Normally the show features a star- studded cast but the theatre has not yet announced who will be headlining. In previous years stars such as David Hasselhoff and Diversity have been the box-office busting acts. The Cliffs Pavilion did not respond to the Echo yesterday when contacted for a comment on the future of this year’s panto.

The Thameside Theatre in Grays is also a favourite for south Essex pantomime-goers. This year’s production, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is due to run from December 4. Polk Dot Pantomimes who are staging the show, did not respond to the Echo when contacted yesterday.

Theatre insiders have stressed that with music and dancing numbers there really is no way to curtail closeness in a pantomime- and any attempts to do this would ruin the spirit of the show.

The resident dame at the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, John Barr, summed this up when he explained that social distancing at a panto just isn’t feasible: “I'm right down there, picking on a bloke, sitting on his lap, kissing his bald head, shaking his hand – I can't do any of that now.”

The Towngate, the Cliffs and the Thameside were all still accepting online bookings for tickets as of yesterday.