Fate of this year’s Chelmsford panto undecided

Chelmsford’s annual Christmas panto remains under review, producers have said.

Indoor performances with socially distanced audiences have been able to take place across the country from August 1.

But without an announced date from the government on when theatre performances can resume without social distancing, there is still great uncertainty over the economic viability of theatre productions, including the highly lucrative Christmas pantomime.

In 2018 Chelmsford Civic Theatre celebrated the record-breaking success of Cinderella, which became the best attended panto the theatre has ever staged, with 90 per cent of the seats being sold and almost 28,800 people watching the production.

Similar numbers were reached for the 62 performances of its five-week run of Peter Pan in 2019.

Sleeping Beauty had been planned for the Civic Theatre before Covid-19 struck.

Current coronavirus social distancing rules mean that auditoriums would only be able to use between 30 to 40 per cent of their capacity, meaning many productions will not be economically viable.

A spokesman for Chelmsford City Council said: “We’re working as hard as we can to get our theatres open again, but the latest guidance means that along with other venues up and down the country, we are not yet able to do so, and we can’t put a date on when this might happen.

“Our pantomime remains under review with our co-producers and partners. We’d love our joyful annual production to go ahead, and we’ll be waiting for a fuller picture of what the remaining months of 2020 might bring before making a final decision about this.”

Chelmsford City Council recently revealed it is facing a £9.5million funding gap, even after allowing for some funding from the Government, and it could rise further.

The financial picture was laid out in a comprehensive report to the city council’s cabinet meeting on July 8.

The report attempts to look at prospects for the next five years, and makes estimates in light of the enormous blow dealt to its funding by the coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic has had a major impact on the finances of every local authority in the country, as cash from theatres, events, car parks, properties and leisure centres has vanished, while extra spending had to be found to help with pandemic management.

The cash from these charges makes up over half of the council’s total income and pays for services like emptying bins, recycling collection, street cleaning, housing the homeless and community safety.

Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter