Can I go to the theatre? What the tier system means for panto season

Telegraph reporters
·4 min read
Pantoland is opening at the London Palladium this December - Paul Coltas/London Palladium
Pantoland is opening at the London Palladium this December - Paul Coltas/London Palladium

Today, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that more areas in the South-East will be moving into tier 3 from midnight on Saturday. They include Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Peterborough, the whole of Hertfordshire, Tandridge, Reigate & Banstead, Surrey (except Waverley), Hastings and Sussex on the Kent border of East Sussex, and Portsmouth and Gosport in East Hampshire.

In tier 3, the most restrictive in the current tier system, all theatres and entertainment venues must close, essentially creating another lockdown for the industry.

The only good news comes for Bristol and North Somerset, as the region moves down from tier 3 to tier 2 in this latest review. That means Bristol Old Vic can reopen.

So, what does the tier system mean for your theatre plans?

Tier 1

In the lowest tier - medium risk - venues are allowed to open to socially distanced audiences. This is similar to how theatres operated pre-second lockdown.

Shows can go ahead, but with Covid precautions in place, such as temperature checks at the door, mask-wearing compulsory throughout, e-tickets, and purchases done by card payment rather than cash. Alcohol can be served at bars.

The ‘rule of six’ is still in force, and you cannot sit with anyone who is not in your household or support bubble - so bear that in mind when booking tickets. Those bubbled groups (from one person to six) will be separated out in the audience.

There is an 11pm curfew. Shows cannot open after that time, but they can end after 11pm.

However, one big change with these new rules is the capacity cap. Venues can play to audiences of either 1,000 or 50 per cent of conventional capacity - whichever is smaller. The DCMS confirmed that the capacity does not include theatre staff or performers, only audience members.

That won’t affect most venues, since the social distancing rules mean most are operating at more like 30 per cent capacity anyway, and/or smaller numbers than 1,000. However, some shows will be badly impacted, such as the Les Misérables staged concert at the Sondheim Theatre in the West End, which has been selling 750 tickets per show in a 1,074-seater venue.  

Another issue for theatregoers is that you are not allowed to travel between tiers, except for purposes of work, education, caring responsibilities or medical treatment. So if you’re in a tier 3 area, like Newcastle, and you’ve booked to see a show in a tier 2 one, like London, you won’t be able to make that journey.

If in doubt, contact the theatre box office to discuss your booking. Most venues will have a refund policy in place, with options to rebook for another date, get a credit voucher or claim a full refund.

There are very few areas in this tier at the moment: Cornwall, the Isle of Wight and the Scilly Isles. But other regions might move down a tier in due course.

Tier 2

This middle tier - high risk - is very similar for theatregoing. 

The big difference here is that alcohol cannot be served at bars. However, seated service, where you place an order via the theatre website or app, and they are brought to your seat, is still allowed.

Areas here currently include London (good news for the partial return of the West End), Liverpool and York.

Tier 3

This strictest tier - very high risk - is disastrous news for any planned shows in that area, since there is a blanket ban on theatre openings. This is a significant change in policy from the tier system earlier this year.

Among many others, fans of the musical SIX will be disappointed. It was due to run at the Lowry in Salford, Greater Manchester, from December 4.

You are also advised not to travel from this high-risk tier at all.

Drive-in and streamed shows will be permitted, but not shows with a live, in-person audience.

Another massive logistical challenge for theatres is that places might move into a higher tier mid-run; the tiers are re-evaluated by the government every fortnight. So, keep an eye on the tier status of your area. If it moves into tier 3, all productions in that region will be halted.

Theatres Trust Director Jon Morgan says: "It is a terrible blow for the theatre sector that so many large towns and cities in England are now in Tier 3 where theatres are not permitted to open."

His thoughts were echoed by Julian Bird, Chief Executive, Society of London Theatre: "Today's announcement is a relief for theatres in tiers 1 and 2, but equally devastating tier 3 theatres yet again forced to cancel shows. This risks the survival of many venues."

The show must go on - but for how long?