King's Theatre in Edinburgh reveals 'double jeopardy' crisis as Christmas panto is called off

The King’s Theatre in Edinburgh has been plunged into crisis after being forced to axe its annual Christmas panto and use money set for a long-awaited revamp needed to prevent permanent closure of the 114-year-old building.

Allan Stewart, Andy Gray, Grant Stott and Jordan Young were due to appear in the forthcoming production of Sleeping Beauty.
Allan Stewart, Andy Gray, Grant Stott and Jordan Young were due to appear in the forthcoming production of Sleeping Beauty.

Calling off this year’s production of Sleeping Beauty, which was due to run from late November till mid January, due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic will result in losses of £2.3 million, a third of the normal income for its operators, Capital Theatres.

There is huge uncertainty over when the much-needed refurbishment will be carried out due to a growing funding gap while the theatre is closed indefinitely.

It has already had to refund more than two million pounds worth of tickets for shows at the King’s and the Festival Theatre, which it also runs.

It will only be the fourth occasion in the history of the King’s that it has not staged a panto since it opened in 1906. Previous stars include Stanley Baxter, Jimmy Loan, Rikki Fulton and Gregor Fisher.

Fiona Gibson, chief executive of the charitable trust, which runs the theatre on behalf of the city council, said the loss of the show, which sells more than 90,000 tickets each year, would be “devastating.”

She said the King’s was facing a “double jeopardy” future with no prospect of being able to stage shows until well into next year and growing uncertainty over when it would be able to start work on a £25 million makeover.

Due to get underway in September 2021, it has already had to be postponed for a year due to the impact of the pandemic. Ms Gibson said a £6 million development fund which was supposed to help pay for the project was having to be used to meet the costs of the temporary closure of the King’s and the Festival Theatre.

The King's has been closed since March when Scotland’s performing arts venues were forced to go into shutdown. Although they have been told they may be able to reopen in mid-September, strict social distancing is expected to be enforced, ruling out shows like the panto going ahead.

The King’s show has been called off days after its producers, Qdos, warned it had begun talks with venues across the UK due to the lack of uncertainty over how theatres would be allowed to operate over the festive period.

Ticketholders for the King’s show will be able to transfer their booking to 2021, when it is hoped Sleeping Beauty will be able to go ahead, although Ms Gibson admitted it was unclear when the King’s would be able to reopen next year.

In an exclusive interview, Ms Gibson said: “There is no guidance yet for how theatres in Scotland, but it is looking like there will be two-metre social distancing.

The future of the King's Theatre in Edinburgh is hanging in the balance. Picture: Mike Hume

"We have talked about the viability of trying to do socially-distanced performances, but the numbers would just be so limited. It just became obvious that it wouldn’t work.

"The biggest thing issue with the panto is the safety of the cast being able to rehearse and be close to each other, and also the scale of the panto sets. It is just too difficult.

“We may be able to do a socially-distanced test event at the back end of this year but we are working of a scenario of not having a full programme again the spring of next year, but it’s almost like plucking a date out of the air at the moment. We just don’t know.”

A long-term refurbishment of the King’s, where Dame Margot Fontaine, Maria Callas, Juliette Binoche and Dame Maggie Smith have all performed, has been planned for well over a a decade and a new vision for its future was finally revealed in 2018.

The theatre's bars and foyers were due to be overhauled, new dressing rooms and wardrobe facilities created, a never street-level cafe-bar opened up, a new education studio built and a new stage installed to allow the theatre to host a more diverse range of events.

However Ms Gibson suggested that the future of the project, which was aimed at increasing the number of annual visitors to the King’s by more than 50 per cent, was in serious doubt unless Capital Theatre was able to access an emergency fund for performing arts venues.

She added: “The loss of the panto is really significant for us because it makes up a large chunk of our income every year.

"We are very concerned about the King’s redevelopment in the long term. We were building up funds for that but we are having to repurpose those funds. We are going into a double jeopardy situation. We want to save the King’s and save our staff, but both of those are in jeopardy, especially after losing the panto.

"We had raised £18m out of the £25m we need for the refurbishment. The real challenge for us is our own development fund which we raised from the work we produce. We are likely to be a year without any trading. We also have to find the balance. We are not likely to raise any more in the next year.

"We were due to contribute around £6m by 2021 from our own development, but are having to dip into that fund now just to keep the theatres going. We had £2.3 million in the bank but we have already used a million of it and will have used it all up by the spring of next year unless we can get emergency funding.

"We were just heading into the final detailed design of the project. We have just gone in for planning permission, but it is precarious now.

"It would be great to get it over the line with the help of the emergency funding for performing arts centres, but the way it is working at the moment you have to be technically insolvent.

“We want to get the project underway by September 2022. We have saved money in our development fund for that reason. We don’t want to use it to keep the lights on and keep our staff on."

The cast of Sleeping Beauty, which has officially been postponed until 2021, today spoke of their dismay at the loss of this year’s panto.

Broadcaster Grant Stott, who has played the “baddie” role in recent years, said: “Just like everyone who loves our annual panto, I am absolutely gutted at the prospect of no show this year - it will be my Christmas Xmas away from the Kings since 1999.

"However, even baddies can be optimistic and I am already looking forward to staging Sleeping Beauty in 2021 – which, in the circumstances, now promises to be one of the most special Pantos ever staged at the King’s.”

Andy Gray, who returned to the King’s stage last year after being forced to take a year out to undergo cancer treatment, said: “I’m very sad that we won’t be trying to wake Sleeping Beauty this year, but it’s been a strange year 2020 for us all hasn’t it? I tell you this ... We look forward to seeing you all in 2021.”

Allan Stewart, who has played the King’s panto dame more than any other actor, said: “I can’t imagine a Christmas without a King’s Panto. But in the words of the Terminator …. ‘We’ll be back’.”

Jordan Young, who joined the cast last year, said: “I’m incredibly disappointed that Sleeping Beauty won’t be at the King’s this Christmas. The most important thing is safety for everyone, staff and audience alike."

Michael Harrison, managing director of Qdos, said: “I was studying in

Edinburgh when I saw the first ever pantomime Qdos produced at the King’s.

"I think I saw it four times because I just loved the genre and I knew that Allan was someone very special.

"As one of the longest running pantomimes in the country, and certainly one of the most popular it is incredibly difficult to step away from it this year and resign ourselves to a year without that wonderful atmosphere and love between the audience and performers on stage – that is pretty unique.”

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