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The Rushen Players’ sellout November production. Peter Gordon’s Death by Fatal Murder. Photo: Ged Power |

As the UK prepares to leave its second period of lockdown and enter into the dreaded tier system, think if you will, about the little island in the Irish Sea positioned just 191 miles from the Lancashire coastline. The Isle of Man hasn’t only avoided a second lockdown; it dispensed with facemasks and social distancing in June! Sardines takes up the story of the new normal…

Vanessa Montgomery Williams and husband, Jamie Montgomery, travelled to the Isle of Man with their infant son, Evan, back in August (Vanessa grew up on the island) to stay with Vanessa’s mum. The couple applied for ‘compassionate exemption’ to support Vanessa’s mother in helping care for Vanessa’s dad after six months of her mother carrying on without respite (he’s ninety-four and bed-bound). Vanessa’s mum hadn’t seen Evan since spending a week in Hertfordshire after he was born nine months ago and her dad had never met him!

The couple’s plan was to go over in August, stay for a month and then travel back to the Home Counties. However, when the situation in the UK became more apparent, the consensus was to stay on the Isle of Man until the New Year. With Vanessa still on maternity leave and a freelancing Jamie not doing much this year as a lighting technician in the film and television industry, the family were able to spend the time away from the UK (of which the self-governing Isle of Man is independent, in fact islanders usually refer to the United Kingdom as the ‘mainland’).

Until fairly recently a committed Vanessa used to run the press and PR for MADF (Manx Amateur Drama Federation). “They did the one-act play festival in February, just before things developed – mostly featuring groups from the island,” she informs. “They called off 2020’s Easter festival of full-length plays – and I’ve heard they’ve already called off next year’s too – because it can’t be guaranteed that groups will be able to come over next spring.” The Easter festival usually sees a number of groups from all over the UK come to the IOM to take part.

I asked Vanessa about the Isle of Man’s unique position – one that the rest of us can only dream of. Back at the beginning of the summer the Isle of Man “went 120 days without a single case,” Vanessa tells me. “It’s very strict over here; as I said we had to apply to be able to cross the border. I found out recently that they declined a third of compassionate exemption requests, so we were very lucky.”

Vanessa continues: “They’ve also instituted two weeks of isolation for anybody returning to the island. Initially, they gave people five-days’ warning of the lockdown and anybody who didn’t make it back had to stay in Heysham [coastal town in Lancashire with a ferry port which goes to the Isle of Man].”

“They were bringing twenty people back at a time and putting them in a hotel out in the sticks,” the new mother tells me. It’s not easy to keep theatre and politics away from each other when one controls the other so directly. Vanessa carries on describing how the IOM has managed to shake off the burden of the pandemic: “Probably similar to being in prison; people weren’t allowed to leave their hotel room except for a single walk around the grounds each day. They did have lockdown here from March to June and if there was another outbreak they’d do the same again, but it would be a lot quicker to get on top of things over here. We’ve had twenty-four deaths in total – eighteen of which were in a single care home, which is what happens when a member of staff is allowed back to work straight after returning from a holiday!

“Apart from that incident there have only been six Covid-19 deaths. Contact tracing is the most important thing really and that’s quite easy to do on an island of just 80,000 people. After a while they did go down to a seven-day isolation, or you could opt for a £50 test. But they’ve since decided that’s still too risky. When we arrived we had to isolate in two separate rooms for a fortnight, with my mum leaving us food on a tray outside the door.”

Jed Power and Ron Beswick both live on the Isle of Man and are heavily involved in amateur theatre with a seventy-year-old society – and one of the oldest on the island – called the Rushen Players. In the second half of November the group performed Peter Gordon’s Death by Fatal Murder in front of a soldout run of audiences, all shoulder-to-shoulder without social distancing or wearing facemasks.

Ged tells me about the group’s business-as-usual approach: “We’re proceeding as normal. That’s the way it is. If you take away travel and getting on and off the island, life is pretty much back to normal for most people.”

Ron agrees. “We’ve had our borders closed since it first hit and I think it’s only residents who are allowed to come into the island now. As far as the Rushen Players go, we have been carrying on as normal. We can also travel across to the UK, but we would need to self-isolate for fourteen days if we came back. Apart from that, as I’ve said, the borders are essentially closed.”

Ron continues to chat about the IOM Government’s strict policy to protect its way of life: “We just haven’t got people visiting the island at the moment; the airport is hardly operative. But going to pubs, sports, any ‘crowd’ situations… nobody wears facemasks and the only reported cases might be from a couple of emergency workers who came over and brought it with them. So at the moment we’re not in the thrust and chaos of the pandemic that you are.”

“I saw the flyer go out for the Rushen Players’ production for Death by Fatal Murder,” Vanessa tells me. “I thought ‘That’ll be well-attended.’ People are keen to get out and support something that’s going on.” And she’s not wrong there. I ask her if she puts it down to the sheer hunger for theatre?

“It’s easy to think that this is something that’s happening only in the UK,” she tells me. “There’s very much a community-feel here with that feeling that everybody knows everybody. The majority of people do love living on the island and playing their part in the community just to keep our way of life safe. People have even being going on ‘staycations’ just to help the hotels and restaurants survive.”

At the end of August, the first theatre show on the island took place at the beautiful Gaiety Theatre in Douglas. “Shortly before we came over,” mentions Vanessa, “they did a production of Calendar Girls, and the turnout was fantastic because people were just desperate to see something again.”

Ron Beswick also sings the praises of Tim Firth’s village hall blockbuster: “The Legion Players’ production of Calendar Girls at the Gaiety was an inspired choice! Stephanie Gray, the Players’ president thought, ‘Well, we’ve got nothing to lose; let’s apply for it.’ After a couple of toings and froings they managed to get a license. However, they did the run as a charity event and raised £30,000! And that was the first real, live theatre that came back on to the island. An amateur show.”

Mind you the island’s jewell-in-the-crown, a beautiful Frank Matcham design, plays host to plenty of professional shows too including a festive pantomime… although not this year, as Vanessa points out. “The Isle of Man government gave a contract to a company from Liverpool to do the pantomime here for three years, and this was meant to be their final year.”

I can feel an ‘Oops!’ coming on! “They applied to see if they could still bring over their cast, director and sets – but they’ve been told they can’t. Instead, somebody else is going to direct the pantomime which will, this year, feature an all-local cast so it can still go ahead.”

Ron explains further: “It’s going to be done with amateur actors from the island and a professional UK director working over Zoom. It really is only key workers who can come across; healthcare workers, transport etc. The North West of England was a real infection hotspot leading up to the second lockdown which is why the Manx government is wary about relaxing the border restrictions.”

“Meanwhile, the company in Liverpool has been given a year’s extension to come back in twelve months and finish their contract,” adds Vanessa. “It’s a bit of a shame because there are local [amateur] groups here that put on a good show, but the difficulty is the powers that be do want professional productions to come across and draw people out. It does obviously mean that the local groups will usually lose that opportunity to perform at the Gaiety Theatre.”

Historically, the Isle of Man, and the Gaiety Theatre in particular, has played host to a number of top-flight productions that UK amateur groups wouldn’t usually get the chance to perform due to the withdrawal of rights. Such titles include The Phantom of the Opera (2015), Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (2017) as well as the aforementioned Calendar Girls (2020).

However, this isn’t always the case as Ron Beswick has recently discovered: “Last year I tried to get the license for An Inspector Calls and they wouldn’t do it because a big national tour was going on. I tried again this Autumn and they told me it was still blocked. There are obviously no tours going on at the moment, so I don’t think that people like French’s [now part of Concord Theatricals] really understand the situation.”

“Maybe they’re simply not aware that places such as the Isle of Man are willing and able to take on these plays and shows,” interjects Ged.

“Just picking up on something Ron mentioned,” continues Ged. “Because these licenses aren’t being used anywhere in the UK, the Isle of Man might be able to pick up a production that would normally be beyond our reach.”

Are you listening, rights holders? There are amateur companies on the Isle of Man that would be up for taking the odd license off your hands and, what’s more, it would count as an international performance rather than a UK production which might otherwise be difficult to grant.

“The only other place without any social distancing, that I know of, is probably Guernsey,” says Ged getting back on to the subject of the Isle of Man’s Covid-free status. “We have quite a lot to do with the island and actually had an air-bridge with them. I think they sent over about five thousand tourists throughout August and September. Jersey is a different kettle of fish and could probably go either way regarding lockdowns, but Guernsey is quite similar to us. I think Jersey has had quite an open approach to managing their border and they definitely have a few more cases.”

“I think Guernsey had half a dozen cases and, as a result, we’ve now shut the air-bridge with the island – temporarily I hope,” adds Ron. “We brought back any IOM residents on holiday out there so they could quarantine, but the point is we’re such small places that we can do these things. The Manx government has really done a superb job aided by the fact that we could close the borders… being a little rock in the middle of the Irish Sea.”

“It’s only the water around the island that’s keeping us safe really,” Vanessa throws in. “We’d be in exactly the same boat as the UK if we were part of the mainland or joined to Ireland.”

The Isle of Man’s biggest attraction is of course the annual TT Races, when the island’s roads become scorched with the smell of rubber. “The TT Races, which are such a big thing on the island, were cancelled this year,” reports Vanessa. “Tourism has obviously taken a massive hit everywhere, and I just can’t see it getting back to normal again; it’s going to be so expensive to travel anywhere for a start. With the airline industry recouping its losses, the potential for things like flying going back to being something only the super-rich do is both scary and sad. Over this summer the tourism industry has relied on people having smaller holidays around the UK so, moving forward, communities are going to have to rely on people supporting from within their own communities. The lack of jobs and financial ramifications are going to hurt people as much as the virus does.”

Back to theatre and I ask about the IOM’s new normal (after all this could be the UK in six months’ time). “The Service Players have just started a production of The Wind in the Willows at the Gaiety…” which is another amateur production.

“They’ll get about five hundred to come and see that…” adds Ged instantly.

“MADF is planning its one-act play festival in March,” continues Ron. “Although I very much doubt it’ll be part of the AETF Finals this year; I can’t see how that could possibly run. But we’re definitely hoping it’ll be four full nights [three per night] of one-act plays, and completely island-based of course. That’ll be the first MADF event but of course, meanwhile, each society will also be doing their own thing.”

People like Samantha Barks who grew up on the island and left seeking fame and fortune in London’s West End… are now stuck waiting to open in Frozen for instance. She might end up coming back to the island! “Ha ha!,” laughs Ron. “The trouble is, once they’ve left the island it’s not so easy to get back… even for somebody like Sam Barks – although they might make an exception for her.”

“I’m doing some work with two people who have just graduated from theatre schools in the UK,” continues Ron. “With Lockdown in place they came back home and formed their own company called ‘Hello Little People’ and they’re doing children’s theatre, which includes a week-long pantomime over Christmas.”

Panto at Christmas! Suddenly everything makes perfect sense once again.