The Good, the Bad and the Glittery

On stage they're two opposing forces, but the stars of the Millennium Forum's Jack and the Beanstalk both agree that the Christmas panto is here to stay

Come on, we all remember our first time, don't we? Ushered in hushed whispers to seats like excitable little lambs, the collective buzz dimming with the lights, the moment we've all been waiting for... the pulling back of the customary heavy velvet curtains and admission in to the magical realm of Pantoland. With it's exaggerated characters, tongue-in-cheek witticisms and glittering pyrotechnics, panto has become synonymous with Northern Ireland's festive period.

Possessing that timeless quality, our not-so-guilty pleasure screams tradition as do the familiar faces of panto stalwarts like comedian William Caulfield, the dominant Dame of theatre.

Returning to the Millenium Forum this December, Jack and the Beanstalk promises to be a refuge from the monotony and, let's be honest, sometimes depressing modern world.

Better than any 3D movie and minus those ill-fitting plastic glasses, the play's 'Goodie' and 'Baddie' played by Orla Mullan and James Lecky respectively, champion the inclusive and evolving nature of pantomime.

Fairy Rose Petal, the quintessential fairytale Godmother is a far cry from Mullan's usual acting roles but she assures it is the most rewarding. 'I have the honour of opening the show and navigating the audience through the magic. All ages can escape in to a fairytale even if it's only for an hour or two.

'Panto instantly invites audience participation and as the Goodie, there is nothing comparable to having wide-eyed kids caught up in the wonderment and cheering you on.'

However Lecky maintains that playing villain Fleshcreep, is just as enjoyable if not more so. 'Unlike film or any other medium, theatre gives an actor instant gratification from their audience,' he says. 'Being the panto bad boy is the most fun an actor will ever have whilst getting booed!'

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Albeit biased, both Mullan and Lecky hail the Derry audience as the cream of the crop when it comes to theatre-goers. Playing on hometurf, they agree that the craic-loving Derry crowd are 'hard to beat.' Proving one of the most lucrative gigs on the Forum's calendar, Christmas pantomime is a family tradition here to stay – oh, yes it is! This bears the question; to what do we owe this enduring love affair?

For Lecky it's the innocence we seek out that harks back to a simpler age of music hall and variety shows. 'The variety aspect is integral to panto's enduring appeal. If there's a song you don't like just wait it out and there will be a comedic segment around the corner. Bearing in mind the fact that these classic tales are hundreds of years old, traditional theatre is very workable allowing us to move with the times and make adjustments here and there.

'Whether that means the addition of current pop songs or satirical one-liners, the show is constantly evolving. Seeing the same faces in the crowd year after year is testament to that.'

Likewise, The Fall actress Mullan equates the popularity to days of yore, specifically 16th century Shakespearean theatre. 'There is plenty of heckling, boos and hissing,' she says. 'The way theatre was intended to be. The production in Derry is special in comparison to other pantos, in that it follows a traditional format: 'Baddie enter stage left, Goodie enter stage right.

'But I suppose what it really comes down to is the fact that Christmas panto is universal. We want to be entertained no matter our age. The demand for the relaxed and dementia performance and care home sing-songs over the past few years is the cliche 'fun for all ages from nine to 90' in action. And it's this accessibility which has allowed Panto to define the festive season."

More addictive than a tin of Roses, panto has audiences coming back for more. Banish the mentality that it's behind you, resigned for the kids – in the words of the pantomime horse, 'quit while you're ahead.' It's silly, noisy and slightly cringe-inducing, but we love it.

Jack and the Beanstalk opens at the Millenium Forum on Friday December 1 and runs until Sunday December 31, including a specially adapted Relaxed and Dementia Friendly performance on Sunday December 10 at 4.00pm. Tickets are now available at the Box Office. Telephone 02871264455 or visit www.milleniumforum.co.uk.