Minister’s ‘mixed messaging’ is ‘putting the whole industry at risk’ – panto producer

Alan Hughes says tickets bought by schools, companies cancelled ‘costing us thousands’

 Rob Murphy (left) as panto Dame Buffy and Alan Hughes as Sammy Sausages in this year’s ‘Aladdin’ panto show in the National Stadium.  Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

Rob Murphy (left) as panto Dame Buffy and Alan Hughes as Sammy Sausages in this year’s ‘Aladdin’ panto show in the National Stadium. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times


Pantomime producer Alan Hughes has said “mixed messaging” from the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly is “putting the whole industry at risk”.

Mr Hughes said he was “baffled” to hear the Minister say on Monday that he “didn’t see any issue whatsoever” with visits to Santa while endorsing a recommendation from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) that there should be a reduction in children’s attendance at gatherings, such as pantomimes, for the next two weeks.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio 1 on Monday, Mr Donnelly said Cabinet would be meeting on Tuesday to discuss Nphet’s latest recommendations which are aimed at curtailing the spread of Covid-19 ahead of Christmas.

It is understood that there won’t be a blanket ban on playdates or attending pantomimes. However, one Government source suggested that the advice to parents could be that if they considering doing both activities for their children in the same week they should only do one.

“We’re ploughing ahead as we haven’t been told not to plough ahead,” said Mr Hughes, who is the producer of the Aladdin pantomime at the National Stadium in Dublin, which is due to run from December 9th.

“I was listening to the radio and was totally baffled that he could say: ‘Yes, theatre will go ahead, panto will go ahead but children under the age of 12 shouldn’t go but let them go to Santa’s Grotto’.

“The Santa’s Grotto that I’ve seen and been to, there would be hundreds of kids queuing and going in. It’s a small, maybe even unventilated area.

“I mean we’ve a 2,000 seater in the National Stadium, we’ve only about 60 per cent occupancy, there’s amazing ventilation, we’re doing social distancing, we’ve all the measures in place, wearing masks going to the loo. How is he stopping something like that and allowing a Santa’s Grotto that may have no ventilation?”

Mr Hughes said tickets previously bought by schools and large companies had been cancelled, which was “costing us thousands”.

“I’ve had parents phoning me all day going ‘Would it be ok if we went to the panto but then didn’t do any other activity that week? Would they accept that? Would that be something we might be able to do?’ I’m going ‘I don’t know’. This mixed messaging is putting the whole industry at risk,” he told The Irish Times.

Call for clarity

Minister for Arts Catherine Martin “did mention there’s a new performance arts scheme that will come online today, that’s so welcome and so needed to so many,” Mr Hughes said.

“We’ve already invested €300,000 into the show and we will be investing more. That’s money myself and [Mr Hughes’ husband] Karl are just investing, we’re not big massive producers with big backgrounds. We’re small, local producers who put on our own panto every year and have been for 26 years. We’ve never seen anything like this.”

Mr Hughes said he showed up to rehearsals on Monday with 38 staff asking “have we got a job for Christmas?” and called for clarity on the situation.

“I understand health has to come before everything, but don’t say you can’t go to a controlled environment where every safety measure is in place but then say ‘yes, go to another thing’. He [the Minister for Health] can’t do that to us, he really can’t to the industry. He needs to clarify that for people,” he said.

“It’s such an expensive thing to put on, they are hugely lavish shows and you can’t cut corners with pantomimes, it has to be lavish. As a panto producer, we only get one chance a year to put on a show and make a few bob, hire people, hire crew. Some of these people haven’t worked since last Christmas. It’s just shocking.”

During his RTÉ interview, Mr Donnelly said while he appreciated the Nphet advice against holding large gatherings of children was “heart-breaking” for those in the panto industry “we have to act in the common good, we have to act to keep people safe” he said.

“That’s not to take away from the frustration and anger and heartbreak that those in the sector are feeling right now,” he said “but no doubt that they who dedicate their lives to entertaining children and making them laugh and smile and scream with delight, that they too will want to do what is in the best interests of keeping the children safe.”