What does Liverpool’s best-loved panto do when Covid strikes?

'It’s just good to be back in a room again with your mates and entertain'

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Today’s story is a belter from Vicky Anderson, who has been writing about the arts in Liverpool for many years, including for the Daily Post and the Echo originally. She’s written a fantastic piece about Liverpool’s theatreland emerging from the pandemic. Enjoy! And if you love the piece, please do forward it to a few friends or hit the share button below.

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By Vicky Anderson

It’s a blustery, grey day, and the cast of Sleeping Beauty are gathered on the steps of the Metropolitan Cathedral for a photo call. An unexpected gust nearly claims the dame’s immaculately sculpted pink and white foam wig, and gives the photographer a quick Marilyn Monroe moment as the costume catches the wind.

“CAN SOMEONE GET AARON’S ‘OOP AND PULL IT DOWN PLEASE,” yells one of the crew from behind the camera. The skirt, that is. Then there are smaller details to see to, like finding the missing cravat from the prince’s costume, and a debate as to whether the fairy’s wand looks too much like an icicle. Little things, maybe; but this year more than ever, it’s important to get things right. The cast gamely pose and gurn for the press photos and then stop traffic making their procession back to the Hope Street Theatre. Onlookers smile at the absurdity of the spectacle. “Is there a show on?” someone innocently enquires as they pass. Well, this year… oh yes there is (sorry).

The city’s theatres are open again after lockdown and ticket sales for panto — often a venue’s biggest show of the year, and a festive experience completely wiped out in 2020 due to Covid-19 — are going extremely well.

Sleeping Beauty is the first panto from Ellesmere Port-based company Just Entertainment, and was supposed to debut at Hope Street last Christmas. While not an in-house production, they are working closely with the venue with a view to establishing an on-going partnership. Writer and producer Christopher Jones was a veteran performer before moving behind the scenes.

“I looked at what other theatres were doing and knew I needed to find something different and unique,” he says. “The approach I’ve taken is for it to be a professional community project and to keep everything as local as possible.”

It’s no surprise he admits coming out of lockdown has made getting to this stage a challenge. But Jones remains as dedicated as ever. He explains the appeal: “One, everyone loves panto and two, it’s the hardest aspect of theatre to put on – all the comic timing, quick changes, you’re thinking on your feet, actors are breaking the fourth wall. It’s really nice to be with people and share that intimate experience.”

The cast and crew of Sleeping Beauty on the steps of the Metropolitan Cathedral. Christopher Jones, writer and producer, is at the back in the blue suit. Photo: John McRoberts

Hope Street Theatre is a small city-centre venue of 85 seats. The government’s Culture Recovery Fund proved to be a lifeline for them, as it was likely to have gone under without help. As an independent fringe theatre, it does not normally receive Arts Council funding. And since reopening in early October, performers have jumped at the chance to get back on its stage and in front of an audience — the theatre is already fully booked with shows until March next year. The panto opens on December 16 and has already sold the majority of its tickets.

These are all encouraging green shoots of an industry returning; but it’s hard to underestimate the toll the pandemic has taken.

Some of the original Sleeping Beauty cast have been replaced — they weren’t able to return to their roles, as they’d changed career to get through lockdown. The company bought costumes from others who had folded, or otherwise had to sell them off for the cash. Jones even knows of people who took their own lives under the strain.

“To have a career that is full of enthusiasm and energy just taken from beneath your feet, not knowing where your next job is coming from is just heartbreaking,” Jones says sadly.

Aaron Hayes — he of the wardrobe malfunction previously mentioned — pulls up a pew. The candyfloss wig, half a metre tall, has been put aside but the full dame face — exaggerated pursed red lips and pencilled-in arched eyebrows — remains. He’s been playing the dame since he was 20, a role he absolutely adores. “The audience always wants the dame to do well,” he says. “They want to have a laugh with you and enjoy themselves.”

Alongside panto, Hayes has run New Brighton-based Joytime, the UK’s longest-running summer time family show (and one which he’s referred to as “a pantomime without a script”), for nearly two decades. For some job security through lockdown, he became the breakfast show presenter on radio station Liverpool Live, which launched in July 2020. He’ll continue to juggle his morning shows alongside performing in Sleeping Beauty.

“The last 18 months have been a nightmare for anyone in this industry, and people are just ready and want to have a good time and get back to Christmas traditions,” he says.

“All performers just want to get out there again. I’m still a bit out of practice, I haven’t put make up on in two years, but it’s good getting the gear on and getting your walk back, you know.” As for how it feels to be back out in broad daylight hamming it up as a dame: “It’s alright when I’m with other people,” Hayes laughs. “I’ve got to go out and top up me parking in a minute, I’m terrified!”

But Just Entertainment’s rendition isn’t the only Sleeping Beauty in town this winter. On the other side of the city centre, a second, radically different Sleeping Beauty has been preparing for opening night, as the Liverpool Royal Court’s unique brand of festive entertainment beds in.

The Scouse Sleeping Beauty runs throughout November until mid-January, reuniting a cast and crew who are certainly no strangers to each other or to loyal audiences of the venue. This one, however, isn’t one for the kids.

Promising a show “packed with stupid jokes, loads of live music and utterly inappropriate content”, the 1,100 seater theatre has been cautiously building up to this point since re-opening in July. After starting out with a two-hander show and socially distanced seating, it has slowly and steadily increased cast sizes and audience capacity.

Without the Culture Recovery Fund and the furlough scheme, management admits things might not have gone so smoothly. While the vast majority of staff were furloughed at some stage during the pandemic, it’s a success story in itself that all their roles have been retained. And no longer subject to Covid restrictions backstage or front of house, for its biggest show of the year, things are back operating at full scale.

Christmas shows are a huge part of the Royal Court’s programming, constituting eight of its top ten best selling shows over the last 15 years. Tickets went on sale in August this year, a good six months later than they usually would have been available; and despite concerns this might have had a negative impact on sales, instead they went through the roof – crashing the venue’s website on the first day. All being well, more than 50,000 people will see it by the end of its run.

Stephen Fletcher is a familiar face to Royal Court audiences, and is directing this year’s show. The cast are all long-time friends and colleagues, so bringing The Scouse Sleeping Beauty to life — a process that began back in February 2020 — has been a massive responsibility as well as labour of love.

“It’s just good to be back in a room again with your mates and entertain again,” he says. “We’ve all been on our journeys and it’s been hard, people have lost family and friends. But now there’s a feeling of relief and like things are more normal.”

Work for Fletcher has been steady through the pandemic, and he notes the shows he has directed, including NHS the Musical in Plymouth and Ellen & Rigby at the Royal Court both came into being as a response to the times.

Before the full winter lockdown last year, when Liverpool somewhat surprisingly found itself under Tier 2 restrictions that allowed some leeway, the Royal Court was one of very few venues who even tried to move fast enough to put on a Christmas show while they could — quickly devising Selection Box, a scaled-down cabaret subject to the tight Covid rules of the time, including two separate, alternating casts and full social distancing throughout. It didn’t get to finish its run, but for a moment it was able to give the city a taste of just what everyone had been missing. Fletcher recalls that when the curtain rose on opening night, the audience applauded the cast for a full two minutes before anyone on stage said a word. “After last year, this year is a really big deal. I think it’s just that feeling like some semblance of normality — even if you’re dressed as a panto cow, or whatever,” he laughs.

If I were to pinpoint the moment in which Fletcher tempted fate, it’s probably this one. It turns out he’s spoken too soon.

Just a day before the previews were due to begin, the theatre announced four of The Scouse Sleeping Beauty cast had tested positive for coronavirus, leaving them unable to perform the show in full for ten days, scuppering press night plans as well as the start of the party season for thousands of ticket holders. Rather than cancel the performances, just like last year they swiftly adapted a replacement version so the show can go on. “This won’t be the all bells and whistles Royal Court Christmas show that you are used to but we hope it will be a cracking night out,” a statement said.

After everything the industry has been through during Covid, the thing that shines through now is the determination not to go back to those times. The desire to create work to bring people together, and spread joy and Christmas cheer is a responsibility everyone is taking seriously.

As Christopher Jones, back in the Hope Street Theatre puts it: “Everyone has been amazing getting us to this stage. For me, the idea is to transform that theatre space into a magical experience — from the moment you walk in it’ll be wow… sparkles, glitter, wonder, all across the place.”