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Cancellation of Eden Court pantomime could be 'devastating'

By Margaret Chrystall

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Beauty and the Beast last winter was Eden Court's most successful ever panto.
Beauty and the Beast last winter was Eden Court's most successful ever panto.

The future of Eden Court could be under threat if it has to cancel its money-spinning panto this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The theatre’s chief executive James Mackenzie-Blackman revealed a decision on whether planned panto Cinderella will happen or not would have to be made in the next three weeks.

It comes as a Highland Council report revealed Eden Court is projecting to lose 80 per cent of its total income up until the end of January 2021 and is forecasting an annual deficit of £702,000.

The council is the landlord of the venue and guarantor for any pension fund deficit. If Eden Court was to fail the council’s pension liability would be in the region of £1.7 million.

The panto brings in a substantial amount of the arts venue’s annual income and is viewed by thousands of people from Ross-shire every year, amongst them many school groups making special trips as a treat for pupils.

“It is clear we are going to make a decision in the next few weeks about Christmas,” Mr Mackenzie-Blackman said. “If we are putting a pantomime together for December and January then the work needs to start in the summer – we can’t leave it much longer.

“Let’s not escape the facts that if we are not able to put a pantomime on stage then the financial impact of that will be even more devastating.

“A third of our profited income comes from the panto every Christmas. We would definitely need to seek additional support if it was not to go ahead.

“We need support to survive this crisis. We are working hard with funders.”

Beauty and the Beast was Eden Court’s most successful panto ever last winter, with a combined audience of 35,646 during its run.

The theatre called for a show of support from local people just before Christmas last year as it continued to face financial challenges. A cut in funding during the last financial year forced it to undergo a major reorganisation in a bid to plug the gap.

The venue is currently closed until August 1 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Of its 200 staff, 137 have been furloughed, with others working in a unique partnership programme with Highland Council to support its response to the pandemic.

At the start of lockdown in March, Mr Mackenzie-Blackman told the Courier that the challenges of coronavirus had created the biggest crisis Eden Court had faced in its 44-year history.

It is still not clear when the arts centre will be able to reopen or what social-distancing measures are likely to be put in place.

Over the past few months, local fundraisers have been doing their bit to support the theatre, hoping to help safeguard its future.

Theatre group Starlight Musical Theatre raised £1520. Its director Peter Kelly said: “The panto has become a flagship for Eden Court. It’s so well written that it appeals to adults and children – and it’s so important to get kids to the theatre and for them to have a good experience. They are the audience of tomorrow.

“People used to travel to Edinburgh or Glasgow to see the ‘big’ panto, but now we have one on our doorstep that competes with the best. So it would be a sore loss to the public and Eden Court, especially this year when people will be looking for some outlet during the winter, post-Covid-19.”

Choreographer and dancer Claire Darcy raised £1167 with a fundraising online panto dance routine and now plans to set up more digital classes with the fees going to the theatre.

“Having been involved with the Eden Court pantomime since I was seven years old, it holds a special place in my heart – especially these last few years as choreographer,” she said. “I have been thrilled to coach local children and help them participate in a once-in-a-lifetime experience of performing on stage.

“To me, panto brings so many people together as a community enjoying a fun-filled family night out – and not just within Inverness, but from throughout the Highlands, as so many people make that annual trip that brings so much joy to children and adults alike.”

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