Northern Ireland's Pantomime: Defying Trends in the UK
The Christmas season is now well and truly passed (you might even say ‘it’s behind you!’), and with the winter holidays now a distant memory, we thought that the success of Northern Ireland's theatre scene during this festive period is worth revisiting. In this blog, I want to look closer at the challenges and opportunities faced by Northern Irish theatres, focusing on the ever-popular Christmas pantomimes. It’s exciting to note that in numerous aspects, Northern Ireland is actively defying prevailing trends in the UK. Armed with data and insights from industry experts, my goal is to better understand how Northern Ireland stands out in the vast landscape of the UK theatre scene.
While the broader UK witnesses a post-pandemic surge in booker numbers, the reverberations of the cost-of-living crisis are palpable, particularly affecting art forms like Panto and Christmas shows. In January, the Audience Agency noted that sales for pantomimes and Christmas shows across the UK have been falling, with unique bookers standing at 71% of pre-Covid sales, reflecting a decline. Intriguingly, Panto and Christmas shows witness a 30% reduction in bookers compared to a 20% reduction for all theatre productions combined. It is important to note here that this report also mentioned that sales for pantomimes have been declining in the UK even before the pandemic began.
In response to the situation, UK venues have been deploying diverse strategies. Noteworthy among them are flexible payment plans for Panto tickets, allowing patrons to pay in instalments over several months. New Theatre Royal Lincoln introduced a Panto Payment Plan starting February 1, 2023, with four payments and a £50 minimum order. Norwich Theatre also offers Panto Payments with a three-month plan and a £45 minimum spend. Worcester Theatre allows up to four flexi-payments. This adaptive approach aims to cater to evolving audience needs, fostering accessibility to live theatre, especially during challenging economic times. While this news is intriguing, we wanted to have a closer look at sales across Northern Ireland to see if this reflected the situation here. What we discovered was eye opening.
Delving into our own 'Foundations' data, it becomes evident that Northern Irish theatres experiences with pantomime and Christmas shows differ significantly from the rest of the UK. For instance, the Christmas season of 2022 was a resounding success for pantomimes and Christmas shows. Ticket sales soared to £249,000 in 2022, showcasing an impressive uptake from the £222,000 recorded in December 2019. Moreover, the significance of December events cannot be overstated, constituting an average of 22% of overall theatre ticket sales. This robust performance underscores the enduring appeal of live performances during the festive period and their integral role in the cultural fabric of Northern Ireland.
So why is it that the issue of a decline in pantomime doesn’t seem to be impacting Northern Irish audiences in the same way as the rest of the UK? I met with a few important representatives from across Northern Ireland’s theatre community to see what I could learn.
Lisa Heaney, Box Office and Access Manager of the Millennium Forum, attributes the venue's remarkable success to its unwavering commitment to accessibility and inclusivity. Overcoming these issues is clearly an important mission of the theatre. For instance, since 2013, the theatre has included relaxed and dementia friendly performances as part of its pantomime program, making it the first theatre in Ireland to offer such shows.
In the past two years, the theatre has featured popular pantomimes such as "Jack and the Bean Stalk" and "Cinderella", having both sold in excess of 30,000 tickets in the last two years. The theatre's dedication to providing signed performances for those with hearing impairments, staging Makaton performances for communication difficulties, and offering online training for teachers underscores its commitment to creating a diverse and immersive Panto experience.
Last year, the theatre introduced a Flexible Payment Plan, being one of the only theatres in Northern Ireland to do so. The theatre allowed customers to pay over three instalments, in weekly or monthly payments. If the arrangement needed to be extended, the theatre worked with the customer according to their requirements.
However, Lisa mentioned that this plan was less successful than initially hoped. She cites that this was possibly due to the plan being introduced later on in the programme. However, another factor is that the theatre has routinely offered extensions on payments to ticket buyers. Due to the system that was already in place, people did not maybe get on board as much as the theatre hoped. The theatre plan to introduce flexible payment plans earlier this year, with the idea that it will catch on more quickly than 2023.
Arts and Theatre Manager Katherine Gardiner also shared great insights into the success of her theatre: the Theatre at The Mill. Competing with streaming services and larger urban venues, the theatre has managed to find a stronghold during the festive season, particularly with its annual Christmas pantomime. While their Christmas show was performed on site, the Christmas Pantomime was held at their sister theatre, the Courtyard Theatre.
Despite being categorised as a 'satellite theatre,' the unique appeal of local venues becomes evident. Convenience, affordability, and a strong sense of family tradition contribute to the theatre's success during the festive period. However, it is worth noting that while the pantomime performed well, the theatre did struggle for numbers at their Christmas show. Where panto has historically been seen as an opportunity to be commercial, the production costs and other external factors have meant that while they still saw great attendance figures, their margins have declined greatly.
Katherine notes that adult-focused shows face competition from nearby Belfast, but the annual Christmas pantomime remains a consistent draw. The theatre's loyal audience, comprised of families and school groups, returns year after year, creating a tradition that spans generations. The affordability of the panto, (the standard ticket price is £12, with a concession for schools at £10), coupled with free parking and the immersive nature of the experience, positions it as a cost-effective and cherished alternative for families navigating the challenges of the cost-of-living crisis.
I also spoke with Roger Dane, Theatre Manager of Belvoir Studio Theatre, a professional community theatre situated in Belfast. Roger expressed less optimism than Lisa or Katherine regarding the current situation in Northern Ireland. His concerns stemmed from the mounting strains on household finances due to the rising cost of living surpassing wage growth.
In 2023, the 200-seater theatre achieved a 92% capacity rate, a notable increase from 2021’s 59%. The theatre is coming away from a very successful year, but as Roger commented, it has yet to hit the heights of the record attendances pre-pandemic. It is important to note that amateur theatre faces a number of unique challenges, including limited funding opportunities, limited cast availability and constraints on scheduling matinees. Consequently, Roger harbours some apprehensions about what lies ahead for amateur theatre. In spite of this, the theatre continues to make changes to cater to its audience. For example, the theatre had their first BSL signed pantomime performance of “Beauty and The Beast” in December last year.
In conclusion, all three theatres demonstrate a commitment to meeting the needs of their audiences by actively collaborating with them to accomplish shared objectives. Their shared focus on providing thrilling and enjoyable family shows at reasonable prices underscores their dedication to creating accessible and entertaining experiences for all. For amateur theatre, there may need to be more focus placed on practical and financial support to help them celebrate and sustain their own full houses too. This commitment resonates throughout Northern Ireland, and isn't that the real secret to Northern Ireland's success? 'Oh no, it isn't!' 'Oh yes, it is!'