Live Christmas shows planned for Perth and Pitlochry

Theatres in the Central Belt may be struggling to make live work due coronavirus restrictions, but Perth Theatre and Pitlochry Festival Theatre – both located in areas where restrictions are more relaxed – are hoping to put on Christmas shows this year. Joyce McMillan reports
Barrie Hunter: "We just felt that we had to do something to keep the spirit of panto alive this Christmas." PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken WanBarrie Hunter: "We just felt that we had to do something to keep the spirit of panto alive this Christmas." PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Barrie Hunter: "We just felt that we had to do something to keep the spirit of panto alive this Christmas." PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

That Pitlochry Festival Theatre has the most beautiful physical setting of any theatre in Scotland is hardly in doubt; and this Christmas, Pitlochry’s famous site overlooking the River Tummel is about to come into its own, as the scene of the kind of outdoor Christmas celebration that many theatres dream of staging, during the current pandemic, but that few have the space to bring to life.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Pitlochry – alongside its near neighbour, Perth Theatre – is stepping into the theatrical limelight this Christmas season. Unlike the theatres in the Central Belt, both Perth and Pitlochry are currently at Level 2 so far as Scotland’s Covid restrictions are concerned, meaning that outdoor events can take place, provided audiences are seated and distanced; and Pitlochry's response has been to create a show that can take place in and around the magical Explorer’s Garden, the majestic woodland on the steep hillside behind the theatre that is already famous as the home of unforgettable Enchanted Forest sound and light events.

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The show – written, directed and designed by Pitlochry’s artistic director, Elizabeth Newman – is called The Magic of Christmas, and will take audiences on a quest for the vital guiding North Star, which has been kicked out of its place in the heavens by Santa’s over-enthusiastic reindeer team. There will be giant advent-calendar doors dotted through the woodland, plenty of surprises and treats, and a cast of four, including Colin McCredie of Taggart fame, who played Scrooge at Pitlochry last Christmas; and in a season starved of theatrical entertainment, the company has already had to add extra performances to meet demand.

“We do have to be ready for anything, given the situation,” says Elizabeth Newman, “so the show will be available online and as a film, no matter what. We are hoping that our live performances will go ahead, though, although we’ve had to adapt it several times to accommodate new rules. And over the last few weeks, I’ve also worked up a kind of installation version, so that families can visit the woods, see all the magical settings for the story, and then take the film home to watch the performance itself.”

At the end of October, Pitlochry also announced that it will go ahead with the first phase of its long-planned Vision 2021 building development, for which money had already been raised before the pandemic; and the first phase will involve the development of a new studio theatre in the space – just behind the theatre’s south wall, usually covered with huge Pitlochry season banners – that was designated as a possible future studio by the theatre’s architect, James Dunbar Naismith, when the new building was opened in 1981.

“We just felt that since the theatre is closed anyway, this was the moment to go for it, and to try to do it really quickly,” says Elizabeth Newman. “It will be wonderful to have a flexible studio space at Pitlochry, whatever happens in future; and we’re really determined that it will be ready, for our reopening next year.”

At Perth Theatre, meanwhile, the Christmas show in prospect is Oh Yes We Are!, a promenade quest for lost love and laughter designed to lead audience into all the nooks, crannies and attics of the recently-transformed Perth Theatre building, featuring a cast of four, and masterminded by the theatre’s regular pantomime Dame, Barrie Hunter. Also well known as a “straight” actor, Hunter has been playing the Dame in Perth pantos since 2011; and in recent years he has written and directed them as well.

“We just felt that we had to do something to keep the spirit of panto alive this Christmas,” says Hunter, “and although we considered trying to stage something outdoors, in the end we felt it had to be about the theatre building itself. The fact that it’s an indoor event does make it more vulnerable to the current rules; but even if we have to do these performances online, we are going to make the experience as much like a live event as possible. We will do the performances live at the advertised time, each one will be slightly different, and we will know who is in the audience for that particular show, so we can give the usual shout-outs and greetings; so even for those at home, it will be as much like a live panto experience as we can make it, and I hope just as daft and enjoyable, too.”

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And for Perth Theatre’s artistic director, Lu Kemp, the panto is another vital strand in what has been a massive effort to keep the theatre in touch with its local community throughout the pandemic, with activities ranging from an extensive film-making project for youth theatre members, to a Gig On A Truck project which has been taking music performances into the gardens and car parks of care homes; and Kemp sees this focus on community work as one of the few advantages of the pandemic experience. “It really has forced us to think hard about how we relate to our community, and given us insights we’ll never forget. And our Christmas show is part of that; a way of showing that we know what the Perth Theatre panto has always meant to Perth, and to audiences that might never come to the theatre at any other time, but that we want to stay in touch with, now and always.”

The Magic of Christmas is at Pitlochry Festival Theatre from 27 November until 23 December, Oh Yes We Are! is at Perth Theatre from 10-24 December,

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