Update: Since the publication of this story, the panto has been postponed to Easter.
Last month, Greenwich Theatre joined over 500 UK venues all lighting up in red in solidarity to the threat to theatres and the live events industry due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Despite the worries, the venue is looking to the future – and planning its panto as normal, as MARK CAPTAIN reports.
The final performance at Greenwich Theatre before lockdown – somewhat ironically – was a production called The White Plague, about a plague of blindness sweeping through a modern city. James Haddrell, the theatre’s artistic and executive director, says: “It was a strange time – audiences had started to dip slightly as people became nervous of a visit to the theatre but most theatre lovers are passionate about theatre and continued to come along.”
Just days after the theatre closed in March, the theatre launched Greenwich Connects, an online programme of weekly events, streamed shows, industry advice sessions, family activities and more. “We knew that we had a choice to make ,” Haddrell says. “We could mothball the theatre and wait until the situation changed or we could move work online and continue to serve our audiences, our artists and our partner companies.”
Arts Council England supported Greenwich Connects financially, so its annual children’s theatre festival moved online. The theatre also created a show just for an online audience. This new version of Steven Berkoff’s The Secret Love Life of Ophelia, which is still available to watch until this evening, includes a cast of 39 emerging actors supported by a guest appearance from Dame Helen Mirren.
Greenwich Connects will continue, with Haddrell and his team exploring how to show work online and on stage simultaneously. “I’m sure a lot of venues will do the same. Many audience members are desperate to get back to the theatre, but we have also met a lot of new audience members online who we’ll stay in touch with that way,” he says.
There is no date for the theatre’s reopening, but work continues on its annual pantomime, which will go ahead this year as long as there are strong ticket sales and the theatre isn’t working with a massively reduced capacity.
This year, writer, director and dame extraordinaire Andrew Pollard takes on the pantomime tale of The Queen of Hearts. Haddrell says: “I can’t think of a better way to emerge from this theatrical hiatus than with a show that’s truly one for all the family. As a team we spent a long time debating the right title for this unique year and rather than settling on one of the most performed titles we decided that maybe this was the time for something completely new. The return to live theatre will be a moment of huge celebration.”
The box office has already reopened with perspex screens in place, increased hygiene measures and the studio theatre is being reconfigured as a cabaret space with individual tables for each household. The main auditorium will also have reduced seating. “We’re certainly not out of the woods, but there are positive signs,” says Haddrell.
Overall, the key to what happens will be the government’s directions on social distancing in theatres. However, fringe theatres are likely to be able to reopen before the big West End venues as there are fewer people involved, making it somewhat easier to adhere to government guidelines.
That may mean that audiences looking for a theatre fix who would usually look to the West End may pick up a habit of going to theatres closer to home – one that they may keep enjoying for a long time to come.
To watch The Secret Life of Ophelia (ends 11.59pm Friday) and find out more about Greenwich Connects, visit greenwichtheatre.org.uk
To book for this year’s pantomime, visit the box office
MARK CAPTAIN is an editor and freelance journalist covering luxury, travel, health, culture and wellness stories.
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