Oh yes they are: How drive-in performances and on-demand viewings are saving Christmas pantomimes

‘You adapt and find new ways of doing things,’ director tells Samuel Osborne

Thursday 24 December 2020 11:57 GMT
Iain Lauchlan stars as the dame in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk Online’
Iain Lauchlan stars as the dame in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk Online’ (Chloe Ely)

Many theatres have been forced to delay their live pantomime performances this Christmas after they were placed under the harshest coronavirus restrictions, but that hasn’t stopped others from finding innovative ways to put on the uniquely British shows.

Some have produced on-demand versions and others have turned to staging drive-in performances, while theatres in tier 2 areas are still able to put on their shows with a socially distanced audience.

“As soon as Covid hit, we were out of the game,” says Gary Starr, a pantomime director who was faced with the option of “doing nothing or doing something completely different”.

He is now touring the country with a drive-in performance of Cinderella, where audiences park their cars in front of the stage and tune their radios to receive sound from the show, which is also projected on to two 40ft screens for all to see.

“It’s a completely new experience,” Starr says, and one the actors have also had to adapt to. “The actors are performing as normal, but they don’t get the same feedback they would because people are in cars, so they have to imagine the responses and then work to that. But with people in cars you do get kids pressing the horn and flashing the lights, which gives a different sort of response.”

The performance itself has had to change with the times, “with no close contact between the Prince and Cinderella, so there’s no kiss”, Starr explains. However, he says it is something which “doesn’t detract from the story at all. You adapt and find new ways of doing things.”

Audiences park in front of the stage and tune their radios to receive sound from the show, which is also projected onto two 40ft screens
Audiences park in front of the stage and tune their radios to receive sound from the show, which is also projected onto two 40ft screens (The Parking Lot Social)

Many other theatres have produced on-demand versions of their pantomime this year. When Nottingham was placed under tier 3 restrictions, the Playhouse theatre was forced to delay its performance of Sleeping Beauty until Easter, but it has created a version available online.

“It’s not the same as coming to the theatre, having an experience with live actors and being able to interact with them,” says Stephanie Sirr, chief executive of the Playhouse.

If audiences are allowed to return, they will experience a pantomime with no intervals, along with socially distanced seating and additional aisles. The theatre will also check customers’ temperatures as they arrive, and people will have to wear masks at all times unless eating or drinking.

The show itself is socially distanced, Sirr explains, adding: “Trying on the slipper is quite entertaining. But unless you’re looking for it, it doesn’t look obvious or jarring in any way.”

“It’s worth keeping going because of what the pantomime means to people in Nottingham. It goes back generations. It’s not just a show, it’s a real contract with our community. If it was an ordinary show, we might not bother, but because it’s pantomime I think everyone appreciates that you keep going and you keep trying.”

Similarly, others have worked on pantomime films, which have been recorded in studios or even back gardens and streamed online.

“It’s been a drastic year for our business,” says Iain Lauchlan, who would usually be starring as the dame in the annual panto performance at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, which is under tier 3 restrictions.

Instead, Lauchlan, who wrote the celebrated children’s series Tweenies, decided to tap into his knowledge of making TV programmes for children and film a performance of Jack and the Beanstalk in his studio.

“Because we’ve had a Covid year, it’s been a lockdown year, I thought why don’t I try and do a panto in my studio with a smaller cast but try and hold on to the same values we had in the theatre,” he says.

His version of Jack and the Beanstalk features “lots of lockdown jokes”, he says, with references to online conferencing service Zoom, fitness coach Joe Wicks and the weekly Clap for our Carers event.

“We wanted to try and keep away from Covid because people have had a terrible experience losing family members. But everyone has had this shared experience of lockdown, so all the gags were relevant to people. It was just lovely to write something based on such a common experience. To do a global thing where everybody understands what you’re on about is just lovely.

“There’s something about a panto that you can get involved in, that is fun and you don’t have to think too much. If it’s well done, it’s a great experience for all ages, it covers everything from the little ones right through to grannies. The whole family can go and enjoy that experience.”

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