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Howard’s way can make for extra-special theatre

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Here’s an easy casting dilemma: if you had the job of choosing one of our leading West End theatre owners for the role of Father Christmas, who would you pick?

As it’s a gender-specific role, Nica Burns and Rosemary Squire are honourably excluded from the shortlist. So, in their absence, we have ALW (nah)… Cameron Mackintosh (nada)… Stephen Waley-Cohen (nope), Max Weitzenhoffer (next)…

There is of course only one person with the necessary build and hirsute features – ATG’s Howard Panter.

Panter (and indeed his business partner and spouse, Squire) doesn’t of course strike everyone in the industry as an altruistic benefactor. Our Mr Shenton has frequently taken theatre owners to task over the question of restoration charges.  Many smaller scale producers, meanwhile, have chafed at the effect of ATG’s policies on their touring returns.

Those issues will rumble on but credit too where it’s merited. I’m talking here of the company’s decision, pre-Christmas, to introduce at three key regional venues – the Churchill in Bromley, Grimsby Auditorium  and Richmond Theatre – specially adapted performances for children with various sensory and learning conditions.

If you are familiar with the condition, the phrase “autism-friendly pantomime” sounds, on the face of it, like an oxymoron: it is the type of theatre guaranteed above all others to produce exactly the kind of sensory overload normally best avoided.

I don’t say this for the sake of a cheap laugh – my own son is autistic and after eight years I’m pretty familiar with the implications. (For the uninitiated, thanks in no small way to its masterful combination of lighting, sound and physical theatre, you can grasp a sense of this from the NT’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.)

My point rather is that it’s a considerable accommodation for a commercial theatre chain to make: minor alterations often have big implications for crew and cast; as the noise onstage is reduced, that from the audience increases proportionately; more visual information has to be supplied together with ‘chill out’ areas. It costs time, money and personnel.

Does it work? Yes it does. Odeon Cinemas was a pioneer as has been the Mayflower in Southampton while, not so long ago, I attended a special theatre performance of Shrek, presented in tandem with Susan Whiddington and her colleagues at that marvellous institution, the Mousetrap Foundation

No seat was spare (even if many were only intermittently sat upon) and it was obvious that this was the first time many families attending had been able to sample the pleasures we take for granted – going into a public place without fear and without apologising to all and sundry because they, for once, were the ‘normal’ ones.

Ironically, ATG’s commitment to this worthy cause was announced within days of the jailing of six of the odious Winterbourne View care home defendants – thus neatly affording the opportunity for disabled and abusers to experience in the same week just how the other half lives.

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