Dames in distress: Britain’s theatres count cost of Christmas wrecked by Covid

As panto season draws to an end, Britain’s theatres are counting the cost of another Christmas wrecked by Covid, with cancelled shows decimating income during a traditionally lucrative period.

York Theatre Royal’s Cinderella – whose star and understudy both had to self-isolate – cancelled 12 performances with an estimated loss of up to £200,000. Theatr Clwyd’s Beauty and the Beast achieved ticket sales comparable to pre-Covid times but the Welsh government’s Covid restrictions, introduced on Boxing Day, led the venue to cancel all remaining performances, worth an estimated £500,000. At Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph theatre, almost half of Jack and the Beanstalk’s run was lost because of coronavirus cases in the company; now the theatre hopes to attract viewers to an online version this month.

Liverpool Everyman’s rock’n’roll pantomime Robin Hood, which ends this Saturday, had almost a third of performances cancelled, amounting to at least £100,000 in ticket income – never mind the lost ice-cream sales. Christmas was a critical period, said its CEO, Mark Da Vanzo. The financial success of the panto, postponed from 2020, “underpins the rest of the artistic programme throughout the year”.

Robin Hood’s first week was cancelled because Covid cases prevented the set from being supplied in time. An additional 15 shows were lost owing to cast and crew illness. “If we get through to Saturday, we’ll have delivered 50 shows out of a planned 71,” said Da Vanzo. “That’s pretty good going considering everything we’ve had to face with Omicron and the isolation rules.” The cast included two “swing” performers, who fill in for other roles when required, and an understudy was available to cover. Without them, “we’d have lost even more shows”, said Da Vanzo. “Once Covid got into the company, it was very hard to stop it transmitting.”

Matthew Quinn as Josie Jingles in Robin Hood at the Everyman in Liverpool.
Dress to impress … Matthew Quinn as Josie Jingles in Robin Hood at the Everyman, Liverpool. Photograph: Robert Day

The Christmas season at the Everyman and its sister theatre Liverpool Playhouse was supported by a grant of £283,599 from Arts Council England’s Culture Recovery Fund and Da Vanzo noted that last year’s VAT reduction had also helped. It meant the theatre did not need to apply for a share of the government’s £60m emergency funding announced in December to tackle Omicron’s impact.

Perth theatre was among the venues to cancel a festive show mid-run when new Covid restrictions came into effect in Scotland on 27 December. Its Cinderella opened in November to rave reviews. Written and directed by ugly sister Barrie Hunter, it became the theatre’s bestselling panto to date and drew an audience from surrounding areas including Dundee, Fife and Stirling, said chief executive Nick Williams. “It’s a huge influx of people and the amount of money they spend is vital not just for us but for the city centre.” But on 14 December, first minister Nicola Sturgeon asked the population to minimise contact with people in other households. A 50% drop in sales ensued, said Williams.

The restrictions brought in on 27 December to minimise risk of transmission included one-metre physical distancing and a cap of 200 people in indoor theatres. Cinderella became unviable: “the whole thing just collapsed”. Perth theatre usually seats around 500; its audience would have been reduced to under 80. The theatre was on course to make 22% more income from its panto than in 2019, but ultimately 40% of the run was cancelled. The impact would be felt all year, said Williams, as audience confidence had been dented. The theatre is waiting to see how much assistance will come from the Scottish government’s mitigation fund.

Benjamin Lafayette in Cinderella at York Theatre Royal.
Utterly Charming … Benjamin Lafayette in Cinderella at York Theatre Royal. Photograph: Pamela Raith

New restrictions in Wales – including the same 200 audience cap but a greater social distancing requirement of two metres – led Theatr Clwyd to cancel Beauty and the Beast from Boxing Day to 15 January. With the secondary income that comes from bar and merchandise sales, the theatre projects a loss exceeding £500,000.

Even theatres that cancelled relatively few performances have felt the hit. Bristol Old Vic’s Robin Hood lost seven shows from a run of 52. The theatre took 70% of the income that would have been expected pre-Covid. Twelve performances of Cinderella at York Theatre Royal were cancelled, with two extra shows added. But chief executive Tom Bird said attendance had been encouraging and that 64% of this year’s audience were making their first ever trip to York Theatre Royal.

Jack and the Beanstalk at the Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough.
Behind you! Jack and the Beanstalk at the Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough. Photograph: Tony Bartholomew

Other venues warn of an unstable environment caused by Omicron and the government’s plan B. Manchester’s Royal Exchange cancelled just a handful of performances of its Christmas show but the theatre said audience attendance had become unpredictable, with up to 40% of tickets sold within 48 hours before a performance. Pre-Covid, the peak time for bookings would have been eight weeks before.

When a show is cancelled, buyers can generally choose a refund, credit note or to donate the ticket price. Several theatres report a dropoff in donations. “In the first lockdown we had a significant proportion of people donating – that has decreased,” said Caroline Routh, executive director of Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph theatre. In 2019, Covid meant that its planned festive spectacular, The Snow Queen, became a spirited one-woman show instead. In 2020, “we were able to go with a five-hander show, which is our normal size”. Covid cases among the Jack and the Beanstalk cast meant 14 performances were cancelled, including during the busiest week in the run-up to Christmas, with the loss in ticket sales estimated at £35,000. However, a grant from the charitable Weston Culture Fund was used to underwrite risk and the view from this seaside resort is rather different. “A lot of theatres have pressure on their Christmas show,” said Routh. “But we make our money in the summer.”