oh no they won't | 

Don’t let the curtain come down on the panto, plead entertainers

Alan Hughes has ploughed €300,000 into the production of Aladdin. Photo: PIPPPictures

Alan Hughes has ploughed €300,000 into the production of Aladdin. Photo: PIPPPictures

Conor Feehan and Eavan Murray

Panto producer Alan Hughes has warned that one sentence from Nphet could crash the children’s entertainment industry for Christmas.

He has sought clarity on whether Nphet was including theatre productions in advice that children not attend indoor events such as nativity plays, playdates and sleepovers.

Hughes, who together with his husband and business partner Karl Broderick are producing Aladdin on stage at the National Stadium from December 9, have called for urgent clarity on the matter, saying they have ploughed €300,000 into their Christmas panto venture.

On Thursday night, Nphet recommended children under 12 should avoid communions, nativity plays and “comparable indoor seasonal events” for the next two weeks. But it did not expand on whether that included professional theatre productions where Covid restrictions such as Covid cert checks are implemented.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar yesterday said it was up to parents to decide whether children could go to nativity plays or the panto over the weekend, and the Government will wait until Tuesday to make a formal decision.

“What exactly does Nphet mean? We’ve had schools and corporate groups cancelling bookings, and people ringing our box office asking if they can still come or not. One sentence from Nphet could crash the whole industry for Christmas,” Alan Hughes told the Irish Independent .

“This is an awful grey area and we need clarity now. Next Tuesday is too late. The p anto in the Gaiety is due to start this Sunday, and we are starting in the National Stadium on December 9,” he explained.

“We were the first industry to stop and the last to start back, and now there is all this confusion again. We are operating strict policies such as checking Covid certs, ventilation, and we decided on only 60pc capacity too. We have all that in place and people are wondering if they can come along or not.”

“Can someone give us clarity on this now please?” he asked.

The well-known TV personality and panto producer organised a drive-in event in Malahide Castle last year to keep his popular show going, and said the decision to come back to a live stage performance this Christmas was something to which everyone was looking forward.

“When people ask us if they can still come we are saying ‘yes’. We haven’t been told otherwise. We have put €300,000 of an investment into this. The sets have been made and painted. We have a big cast and crew of 36 people, and around 15 ushers and workers in the theatre, so if this gets shut down you’re looking at over 50 people with no jobs for Christmas,” Mr Hughes said.

“To say that we could have a p anto but u nder-12s can’t go would be like having an event for OAPs but not allowing o ver-65s go. The audience for p anto is children. That’s who they are aimed at.

“This pandemic is having a devastating a ffect on children. If p antos are affected again we could be looking at a generation of children who have missed out on them altogether in their lives.

“If children have to wear masks, so be it. It would be better than not going at all.

“I’ve been looking forward to being back on stage, and seeing the smiles on faces again. Families are really looking forward to getting that break as well,” he added.

“But now I’m sure that there will be a bottoming out of bookings until people feel more confident and there is clarity,” he explained.

The repercussions of the proposals are being felt nationwide.

Musical director Paul Hennessy said: “I got up this morning thinking about how much I had to do, but I’m left thinking is it worth my while now. Am I wasting my time?”

Mr Hennessy, along with his colleague Tracey Carty, own Evolution Stage School. They are just two weeks out from the opening of their annual p anto in St Mel’s College in Longford.

News that children could be banned from gathering together has thrown months of work into doubt. “We are due to be rehearsing all weekend. It’s not knowing is what is killing us all. What is coming down the line? We are either going to be on or off. If we knew, it would be a comfort.

“Everything is up in the air, but we are going to keep ploughing on with what we have to do, and hopefully, we will get there. Our p anto opens on December 20, and we are already very deep into rehearsals.

“We are in limbo. Panto s are run safely; they are seated events, and people don’t mix.

“When you consider nightclubs are going to stay open, but we are going to stop kids going to a show, it’s very sad. The p anto is a massive thing for a community in a place like Longford.

“We do it in St Mel’s College, which is a basketball arena, but we convert it into a theatre. We build stages and completely transform it.

“At the moment, we have ten shows on sale, and they are selling well. If it does go to low capacity seating, we will be OK because we have a lot of room.”

Director of Mullingar Arts Centre, Sean Lynch, fears the financial hit of having to cancel the panto could be devastating. “We are doing 24 shows, so that gives us a capacity of 8,500, and we have 5,000 tickets sold already.

“We have followed protocols to the nth degree. And we are as safe as we can be, so I’m a bit floored by all this.

“If they go ahead and put restrictions on children, it will be like a nuclear explosion to us.

Today's Headlines

More Irish Showbiz

Download the Sunday World app

Now download the free app for all the latest Sunday World News, Crime, Irish Showbiz and Sport. Available on Apple and Android devices