What next for the beleaguered Alban Arena? The devastating blow of this year's pantomime cancellation will have further repercussions in the coming months, with no positive end in sight.

After 18 months of show cancellations and postponements in the wake of the pandemic, there was a palpable sense of optimism surrounding the return of the annual Christmas panto - Evolution Productions' Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

But just days into its run, and following a five-star review from this paper, the doors shut on the Arena in response to "a potential asbestos-related issue".

It was hoped the panto would return after December 22 following further tests, but then came the news nobody wanted to hear.

A spokesperson for St Albans district council (SADC) revealed: "Significant works are needed to the affected area, which is in a hard to get at spot.

"We do not know exactly when the Alban Arena will reopen but it could be some weeks, and pantomime performances will not resume."

Contractors 1Life, who run the theatre on the council's behalf, are now contacting all pantomime ticket holders to explain that future performances have had to be cancelled.

It is not yet known whether the following shows scheduled for January will take place as planned:

January 9: Hello Again Neil Diamond

January 13: The Dreamboys

January 20: The Music of Prince

January 22: Motown - How Sweet It Is

January 25: Jimmy Carr - Terribly Funny

January 27: Think Floyd

January 28-29: Omid Djalili : The Good Times Tour

Herts Advertiser: Jimmy Carr is due to be performing at the Alban Arena in January.Jimmy Carr is due to be performing at the Alban Arena in January. (Image: Archant)

What happens now?

SADC says there is no perceived public health risk from the asbestos, which is commonly found in buildings of its age, and SADC is working with RSK Asbestos (UKAS accredited asbestos consultancy) and Asbestos Essentials (HSE Llicensed asbestos removal contractor) to tackle the problem.

The spokesperson added: "The council is working with our contractor on a programme of works. This will allow us to understand the duration of any works and the probable costs involved.

"The focus of the works we are doing is to the stage area where there is asbestos insulation that has been disturbed.

"The location of the affected asbestos means a scaffold is required and we will need to encapsulate the area with air handling and specialist equipment.

"The removal and decontamination is notifiable to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) which requires that we wait 14 days from when they’re notified before the work can start. This requires detailed plans, risk assessments and method statements to be produced and submitted to the HSE. These are being prepared."

Save the Alban Arena response

But David Kaloczi, who set up the Save the Alban Arena Facebook group in response to council plans to demolish the venue and replace it with a new theatre, has condemned SADC for the way it has handled the issue.

"The actions that we have seen in recent weeks by our council, which is supposed to democratically serve our community, are despicable.

"As a direct result of the pandemic, theatres up and down the country have had to close their doors; many have not reopened. In brighter times, we look to the Alban Arena to provide a rich entertainment centre, highly valued by local people and more widely in the local district.

"Yet despite almost two years of lockdowns and other restrictions, the council decide that now is the time to close the Alban Arena, albeit on a "temporary" basis.

"By closing the Arena a week before Christmas, SADC is depriving the theatre of generating income, the cast and production team of earning a living, but worse, curtailing Christmas fun for the many families and groups who have looked forward to the pantomime, to give some Christmas magic on the children who have faced lockdown, remote schooling and isolation from their peers at a time when social interaction is fundamental to their development.

"The council closed the theatre while they decide the best course of action on dealing with the asbestos identified within the building, which has been known about for years and regularly monitored. SADC confirmed that there is no risk to public health, yet have still taken the decision to close the Alban Arena at the most lucrative possible time for the theatre, and at a time that will cause most upset to the community."

SADC has denied any link between the closure and plans to demolish the building and replace it with a new venue.

"This situation came about because the council was undertaking a routine building condition survey as part of the end of the current leisure contract and associated re-tender. It has nothing to do with outline proposals discussed recently to redevelop the area and provide a new cultural centre," added the council spokesperson.

New cultural centre plans

David Kaloczi added his thoughts on SADC's plans to demolish the venue: "In the event of the destruction of the Alban Arena, the SADC is proposing high rise blocks of flats overlooking a random green space. Cllr Mary Maynard has said that this random green space would make St Albans look like inner city Glasgow or Liverpool; it would remove the heart and soul from the area.

"Assuming that the demolition went ahead, the positioning of the new theatre would be to the rear of the Civic Centre, on a much narrower site, wedged between the council offices and the Marlborough Alms Houses, completely divorced from the main activity of St Peter's Street. Imagine having to walk through the "green space" in winter to get to it...

"These proposals are ill thought through and all eyes are now on the council which needs to work with and for the good of the community."

The Alban Arena box office can be reached on 01727 844488 or email theatretickets@1life.co.uk