We chat to Emma Sullivan, the theatre director at Milton Keynes Theatre, about the return of pantomime and why local support has been a huge help in 2021
How great is it to be staging a pantomime again?
It feels wonderful! At Milton Keynes Theatre we’re known for putting on a big pantomime with star casting, brilliant production values, and this year will be no exception. Having had a break in 2020, our whole team (and I’m sure our audiences) have sorely missed panto season. Last year we were one of a few theatres in the country selected to host a socially distanced pantomime with support from The National Lottery. Sadly, after working hard to get everything in place, we were unable to go ahead. So, this year it feels extra special to welcome the return of panto.
Why should we be excited about Jack and The Beanstalk?
It will be our first panto to star Ashley Banjo & Diversity, who of course are extremely talented dancers and brilliant TV personalities. They’ll be supported by an amazing cast including comedian and magician Pete Firman, and Gina Murray, who starred in our 2018 pantomime, Robin Hood. It’s going to have all the usual silliness, laughs, music, magic, special effects and fun that audiences have come to expect. I’m mostly excited to see our school groups return. It’s so heartwarming to see children, some of whom haven’t experienced theatre before, get caught up in the action shouting “he’s behind you!” at the top of their lungs!
Can we expect any surprises?
Well, I can’t say much, but yes! Diversity will be choreographing all new routines for this show, so I’m sure they’ll have some tricks up their sleeves.
How do you look back on 2021 for yourself and the theatre?
Theatres are meant to be brightly lit and filled with music and laughter, so the first half of 2021 was a bit lonely and depressing. Most of the team were on furlough and there was just three of us holding the fort, so to speak. From May we were finally able to start bringing back our wonderful team members. I’m incredibly proud of the whole team for the way they adapted so quickly to coming back to work, for their positivity and for the part they all played in getting the building ready for our visiting companies and audiences. Re-opening the theatre, on Sunday 25 July, after 500 days of closure, was a special and unforgettable moment.
During the various lockdowns, did you feel the support of the local Milton Keynes community?
Very much so. We were overwhelmed by the support from our community and they really helped us through this period. We loved reading all the positive messages of support on our social media channels. But more than anything we’re grateful that after a long period of closure, audiences are coming back to our beautiful theatre, to be amused, inspired, and entertained.
We were recently delighted to launch our Local Heroes scheme, offering a discount on selected shows to NHS workers, teachers, armed forces, and other professions. It’s great to be able to give a little back to those who’ve worked so hard over these last few months.
Will you have much time off over the Christmas period?
I wish! We only really stop for Christmas Day, and our shows around Christmas are some of the busiest of the year. But I usually manage to get a few days off for some quality family time.
Do you also live in Buckinghamshire?
I live nearby in Hertfordshire, but have worked in Milton Keynes for almost seven years.I love the green spaces and parks in Milton Keynes. Some people have this idea that it’s all concrete and metal, but it’s one of the greenest cities in the UK.
Does the area come alive at Christmas?
It certainly does. You really know it’s Christmas when Centre:MK hosts its Santa’s Parade event and opening of the grotto. We usually have a few panto cast members there to spread the Christmas cheer! And our business improvement district, MyMiltonKeynes, put on a brilliant light switch-on event in November.
If possible, can you pick out three places near you that you love visiting at Christmas?
I always do an annual visit to Xscape for a refresher ski lesson with my family. It’s a real treat and my children look forward to it every year. I’ve heard about some great Christmas events at Bletchley Park and Waddesdon Manor too, so I’m planning to visit both this December.
What are you looking forward to most in 2022?
Our 2022 programme of shows is already shaping up to be one of the best we’ve seen in a while. We’ll see the return of Les Misérables, one of the best loved musicals in the world. We were so happy to have the show is 2019 as it rarely tours, so to see it return next year is fantastic. We’re also hosting the very first UK tours of Dreamgirls and Bat Out of Hell. We really hope you’ll all join us at the theatre in the year ahead.