Cinderella will go to the ball! The Nottingham Playhouse panto will be going ahead this Christmas, despite the impact of COVID-19 and lockdown. It will look a little different – and, for the first time in years, there is a new writer/director at the helm: Artistic Director, Adam Penford. Our Stage Editor Rebecca Buck caught up with him for a chat...
Adam Penfofd, Nottingham Playhouse’s Artistic Director, is upbeat and optimistic, despite a very difficult year for the theatre venue. When we spoke, Nottingham was just about to slip from Tier 3 into the new national lockdown, but things look much better than they did back at the start of the first lockdown. Nottingham Playhouse is a charity, reliant on ticket sales, but it has also proven itself adaptable and tenacious in the face of the pandemic. Now, with the relief of a substantial grant of Culture Recovery Fund emergency help from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, future planning is beginning in earnest. And the pantomime is a key part of this.
Why is the panto so important? Adam says it’s part of the “cultural calendar” of the city after thirty years and the Playhouse team “always knew” they would find any way to do it, and to include the “joy of live theatre” in the offer, alongside the online streamed performances we’re all so familiar with. Some of the first performances since the theatre reopened, with reduced capacity, have shown audiences to be “excited, generous, respectful and aware of having to wear masks and maintain social distancing.”
So what’s different about this year’s panto? It’s a change from the originally planned Beauty and the Beast by panto legend Kenneth Alan Taylor, which will now take place in 2021. This year, Adam is both writing and directing the show. This cuts down on costs to the charity, but also allows a very specific new script, tailor-made for the restrictions that come with social distancing. Cinderella will be one act (to avoid queues at the toilets and bar), there will be no young people’s chorus, and a cast of just seven people. There won’t be any sing-a-long, or shouting at the stage. Instead, there will be new creative ways for the audience to interact. But Adam – who is Nottingham born and bred – grew up on Kenneth Alan Taylor’s pantos, so audiences can expect some nods to his writing. And of course, there will still be a joke about Beeston.
Adam is keen not to produce an imitation panto though. He speaks of feeling the pressure of “following on from the master” at the same time as trying to work with the COVID-secure measures which will also see those on stage remain socially-distanced: how do you get Cinders to try on a glass slipper at 2m distance? In the end, Adam says, it was “fun to write” and to put a slightly more modern take on the traditional offer. There might even be some political jokes this time around. He chose Cinderella as it’s the most popular of all pantos, but also because of the joyous “magic” of the mid-show transformation, where the pumpkin becomes a carriage and Cinderella goes to the ball. Magic is a powerful thing in 2020.
In a sector where many are freelancers, and fell through the cracks of government support, the panto will not just bring Christmas hope to audiences but to those both on stage and behind the scene
The pantomime is, however, a financial gamble with the uncertainty of ongoing lockdown and doubts over audience confidence. Adam says that one of the key reasons to be positive is that the Playhouse panto will be one of the few actually going ahead this year. An additional online audience might even mean that it has a reach beyond the city – with international audiences tuning in for other streamed shows over the recent months. With capacity in the auditorium reduced from nearly 800 to just under 300, live attendance alone is not sustainable for long.
He’s also aware that the pantomime is important for the performers involved: “casting it was amazing, especially with so many actors currently out of work.” Cast members include Playhouse panto favourite John Elkington, and Nottingham-born actor (and West End star) Sara Poyzer. In a sector where many are freelancers, and fell through the cracks of government support, the panto will not just bring Christmas hope to audiences, but to those both on stage and behind the scenes.
The greater hope is that the pantomime will kick off a renewed 2021 season, which, from March onwards, sees the shows originally planned for 2020 rescheduled, including Private Peaceful and Piaf. Although the Culture Recovery Fund grant secures the Playhouse’s immediate future, audiences will need to return for the theatre to look beyond this. The Curtain Up Appeal, which has received generous donations, will also be an important part of the recovery, as will ongoing online activity and reduced-capacity performances – such as the recent Unlocked Festival.
Adam’s excitement about the panto is compelling, and planning for live performances to bring the magic of Christmas to audiences is at once so normal and so extraordinary in 2020 that it feels like something really special is happening at the Playhouse this season, despite all the odds.
Cinderella will be at Nottingham Playhouse and available online from Thursday 16 December to Saturday 16 January. Visit the Nottingham Playhouse website for up-to-date information regarding the impact of Tier 3 restrictions on live performances, which are subject to change.