In memoriam: Phil Lowe, Harrogate Theatre pantomime director and co-writer

Phil Lowe RIP: Harrogate Theatre pantomime director and co-writer

PHIL Lowe, “irreplaceable” director and co-writer of Harrogate Theatre’s pantomime since 2007, has died.

The “devastated” theatre has announced: “Our friend, associate director, pantomime director and co-writer passed away unexpectedly on Wednesday, October 13.

“Phil was an integral part of what makes Harrogate Theatre special, both to work at and visit. Our pantomime has truly sparkled since he came to the helm in 2007. He is irreplaceable.”

In his memory, this winter’s production of Cinderella will go ahead, running from November 24 to January 16. “No-one wanted to bring the party back to Harrogate Theatre more than him,” the statement said.

Phil Lowe and chief executive David Bown first combined on a Harrogate Theatre pantomime in 2007, co-writing Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, with Mr Lowe directing a cast led, as ever, by “daft lad” Tim Stedman.

In an interview ahead of the first night, Mr Lowe defined the Harrogate Theatre pantomime experience that would prevail on his watch. “The thing is that we need to cater for four-year-olds to 94-year olds, and you need to have every panto element for everyone, so you don’t alienate anyone,” he said.

Tim Stedman as Pickles and Andy Cryer as Dame Nurse Nellie in Phil Lowe’s first Harrogate Theatre pantomime as director and co-writer in 2007

“The set, the music, the costumes, the script, they have to appeal to everyone, and it just has to be magical. I just hope I bring a bit of magic to it, and not in David Blaine or Paul Daniels way.

“Harrogate’s show is a traditional panto, where it’s all about the story. Hopefully, children will say ‘it was just like the fairytale’ they read.

“So, we keep it genuine, but with corny gags and little tricks too – and if it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it. The cast need to keep it rolling, be on the same wavelength with the audience, and have an abnormal passion for panto, like me.”

Thank you, Phil Lowe, for delivering year after year on that brief, in tandem with David Bown.

Harrogate Theatre has set up a Just Giving page for donations in Mr Lowe’s memory, in aid of Harrogate District Hospital’s cardiac care unit, with a £1,000 target that has been surpassed already. To donate, go to: justgiving.com/fundraising/harrogate-theatre1.

“Our thoughts are with Phil’s wife, Caroline, their beloved boys, family and friends,” the theatre statement concluded.

Harrogate Theatre to stay shut till 2021, so no panto, redundancy talks and what next?

Not so Happy Harry: Tim Stedman, pictured in the 2019-2020 pantomime Snow White, will not be taking to the Harrogate Theatre stage this winter in his 21st silly-billy role

HARROGATE Theatre will remain closed until 2021. No pantomime this Christmas and no safety net for up to 60 per cent of permanent staff, facing redundancy after an upcoming consultation period.

This hammer blow/”sensible action” comes despite Harrogate Theatre receiving £395,000 last month from the Arts Council England Emergency Fund, on top of Harrogate Borough Council funding, to cover losses incurred from March through to September.

And there’s the rub. Only until September, point out chief executive David Bown and chair of the board Deborah Larwood in this afternoon’s joint statement, despite being “extremely grateful” for the financial aid so far.

“Whilst we welcome the Government’s new Cultural Recovery Fund [£1.57 billion across Britain in grants and loans promised by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden and Chancellor Rishi Sunak on July 5], we still require clarity as to what specifically we can access from the fund, having already been in receipt of Emergency Funding, and there is no certainty of success.”

The emergency press release carried an upbeat headline – “Our Safety Curtain is down for now, but we are still lighting the way for culture in Harrogate” – but behind that curtain, the unbroken reign of Coronavirus continues to stop play.

“Today we are announcing that the Safety Curtain will remain down at Harrogate Theatre until 2021,” the statement forewarns. “This has been an extremely difficult and very sad decision to make, but we feel it is the most sensible action under the current circumstances; not only to protect the safety of our audiences, volunteers and staff but to safeguard the future of Harrogate Theatre.”

In the wake of the Government postponing the re-opening of indoor performance spaces by a fortnight until August 15 at the earliest, and the even Grimmer Reaper blow of the Culture Secretary now saying that any possibility of a Government thumbs-up to theatres being allowed to return to full capacity will not be forthcoming until November…at the earliest, Bown and Larwood have declared their hand.

The still necessary curse of social distancing leaves them as glum as Cassandra. “Our business model relies on at least half of our auditorium being occupied to break even,” they say. “To produce our much-loved pantomime, we need to sell close to 90 per cent of our seats over two months of shows. With social distancing in place across this beautiful Victorian building, we can only fill 20 per cent of the auditorium. This is not financially viable.”

The heavy cloud of a possible second, wintry wave of Covid-19 hangs heavy over Harrogate Theatre, as indeed it does over all indoor theatre, serving as a killjoy to any planning. “Neither can we take the financial risk of paying for and then cancelling shows if the theatre is bouncing in and out of closure, due to possible quarantines or lockdowns,” warn Bown and Larwood. “Therefore, we are suspending or moving all planned activity for this year at Harrogate Theatre into 2021.

“As a direct result of the pandemic, and the dramatic loss of income associated with it, we have no other choice than to scale back the organisation and reduce our overheads in order to survive.”

What does that mean for the staff? “This means that we have been forced to make the incredibly hard decision to enter a period of redundancy consultation with our staff. At the end of this period, we may have to make up to 60 per cent of permanent roles redundant,” say Bown and Larwood.

“To make it through to next year, we will still need to continue our emergency fundraising campaign. Our audiences and the wider community have been incredibly supportive during these extraordinary times [raising more than £100,00 so far]. From the kindness of donations to the publicly led fundraisers, we have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and generosity shown towards the theatre.

“We accept our responsibility in this special town and must continue doing all we can to secure the future of the theatre. Thank you all for your help and commitment so far.”

Bown and Larwood are not down and out, however, and are looking to bounce back in 2021. “The majority of shows in our autumn season are moving to next year and Cinderella will be dancing at the ball in 2021. If you have tickets for a show during this time, we will contact you to let you know the rescheduled dates of performances.

“As you can imagine, this is a huge task for our small team, so please bear with us and where we haven’t been able to find a new date for you, please consider donating your tickets to the theatre.”

Harrogate Theatre is usually run in tandem with Harrogate Royal Hall and the Harrogate Convention Centre [formerly known as the Harrogate International Centre until a 2017 revamp], but the other two have been commandeered for the Corona war effort as a Nightingale hospital.

“We are working closely with the Harrogate Convention Centre and Royal Hall regarding the use of those venues as a Nightingale Hospital,” say Bown and Larwood. “The action at the theatre does not, as yet, affect these venues. However, we will contact bookers if and when shows are rescheduled or cancelled.

“Harrogate Theatre will also closely monitor what is an ever-changing global situation and will remain flexible to any changes in national policy or guidelines.”

Is there any sign of a silver lining or even autumn fruits? “While the Safety Curtain is down, we remain committed to making and sharing innovative theatre with audiences and participants and in autumn will launch an exciting socially distanced season of special performances and events, both in person and online.”

No details are being released to the media as yet, however. “Our White Rose Members will be the first to find out about these and will also get exclusive access to one-off events,” reveal Bown and Larwood. “Harrogate Youth Theatre and our Associate Artists will continue to be supported throughout the year. Although the doors might be closed, we will endeavour to light the way for the arts in Harrogate alongside our fellow cultural partners.”

To finish on a positive note: “We look forward to the day we raise our Safety Curtain and once again share the magic that live performance in our building brings,” say Bown and Larwood.

“While we understand the impact of this decision, as custodians of our organisation we will do everything in our power to safeguard the company to be able to entertain, educate and inspire for the next 120 years.”