Panto Season Upon Us

Martin Lynch, Gary Mitchell and John Linehan consider the enduring appeal of the Christmas show

The 'It's behind you!' season is upon us, as performers prepare to sprinkle some magic dust all over Northern Ireland's theatres before, during and after the Christmas 2013 holiday period.

The genre has ancient roots, of course – even older than May McFettridge's gags – and one of the old Greeks in the first century, Aelius Aristides, even condemned the pantomime for its erotic content and the effeminacy of its dancing. So, no change there, then.

At the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, however, they don't call it pantomime at all, they refer to their seasonal offerings as strictly 'Christmas shows'. But whatever they call it, this year Cinderella will be brushing the hearth in time-honoured fashion in the theatre's main auditorium.

 

Under artistic director Richard Croxford's watchful eye, the show – a fluffier version of Charles Perrault's sinister 1697 original – is all about the traditional pantomime concerns. That is, good versus evil, the dames and the ultimate emancipation or transformation of the naive central character.

There was a time in the 1960s and 70s when pop stars dominated the stage at this time of year. I recall seeing Adam Faith warble his way through Aladdin in Belfast as a youngster, for example. But then generic television celebrities rode in on the pantomime horse, and Belfast has had its share, including Lesley Joseph (The Wicked Queen in Snow White) and the great Basil Brush – woefully underused in a recent version of Cinderella as Baron Brush.

This year, Lorraine Chase will grace the Grand Opera House stage as Carabosse, the Wicked Fairy in a lavish production of Sleeping Beauty. In fact, the Grand Opera House makes a point of sticking to their celebrity guns, having bought in performers supplied by national provider Qbos, with celebs playing the plums in the cake and May McFettridge the royal icing on top.

Grand Opera House chief executive Andrew Hill explains why. 'Celebrity panto is definitely the current trend today,' he argues. 'Through the year we feature many of the top names in the entertainment business and we believe it's important to continue this tradition during the festive season, particularly when people travel from all over Northern Ireland to attend our pantomime with their families.'

The MAC also seems to be paying attention to the family-friendly nature of traditional panto, although with an untraditional choice of tale. HATCH! Adventures of the Ugly Duck, directed by Patrick J O'Reilly, will be humorous and uplifting, and the goodie – or rather the cygnet – will unsurprisingly win out, because happy endings are a must in patno, regardless of who plays the hero or the villain.

Yet, as seems to be the general rule these days, HATCH! will be accompanied at the Cathedral Quarter venue with a more adult offering, Pony Panto, which features camp – and yes, irreverent – dance routines. It is, as any dame worth his or her salt would quip, the fairy on the tree, if you like.

Elsewhere in town, and for those keen on topical fare, there is a rather different take on the Christmas show. Back at the Lyric Theatre, while Cinderella gets her prince early evening, the adults get to laugh at the idiocies of the year in a spanking new late night revue.

Gary Mitchell, angry young man of Belfast letters and serious playwright, is known for his brilliant body of work – see As The Beast Sleeps, Trust, Re-Energize – but he has changed tack again this Christmas to join the team producing the Lyric's unmissable Forget Turkey (We Liked it So Much, We're Going to Phuket Again).

Mitchell, actor Dan Gordon and comedian Colin Murphy are developing Forget Turkey into something of a franchise, as it enters its second year of entertaining the twitterati. The second show, Mitchell promises, will contain 'flags, yes, but we're broadening it out too, so we'll cover national stories like the hacking scandal involving Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brookes. The News of the Screws, all of that, although we'll try to make the humour a bit more original'.

 

Mitchell is refreshingly honest about why he now annually makes the change from serious playwright to panto poet, saying: 'Forget Turkey was my idea and I was really trying to show my diversity, that I'm not a one-trick pony. I was looking for a commission, so Richard Croxford and I talked about a Christmas show...'

This year Dan Gordon will direct the two hours of splenetic humour, with Murphy co-writing. The three work together well, although there have been differences. 'To be honest, I wouldn't have done the abortion clinic scene last year (about the opening of the Marie Stopes clinic),' Mitchell admits. 'I don't want to upset anybody, but I was overruled. We have a two votes majority system.'

Mitchell's upbringing did not feature the December pantomime trip, and he still has reservations about some traditional elements, including the dame. 'It's just a man in a dress,' he says. 'It's easy.'

The Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey has built a slightly different tradition around one of their regular stars, Nuala McKeever. McKeever does bittersweet like nobody else, and her Eternally Scrooged should be worth watching. It's inspired by Jackie Collins and Charles Dickens – a bold move – and features a female Ebenezer, one Evangeline in (very) big hair.

Similary, comedy duo Grimes and McKee are unveiling their take on the schmaltzy message of the ultimate Christmas movie with It's A Wonderful Life, So It Is! at the Grand Opera House, to provide some bite alongside the main stage Sleeping Beauty.

Martin Lynch, author, producer and impresario who is bringing Little Red Riding Hood to the Waterfront this Christmas, is a late convert to panto, and went to the pantomime for the first time four years ago. His company Green Shoot Productions now has the Waterfront pantomime franchise. As a result, Lynch has been studying the form, and claims to have fallen in love with it.

'There's the same formula in big pantomime towns like Glasgow and Liverpool,' he comments, 'where they tend to have drag queens as dames. You'd get people like TV stars Rikki Fulton and Jack Milroy on, who were huge in Glasgow. My father, who wouldn't have gone to pantomime or liked the dame, laughed his head off at their TV show Francie and Josie.'

As Lynch observes, the dame exists to bring innuendo into the show and provide something for the grown-ups. He doesn't, however, buy the idea of pantomime as a bit of wintry stage subversion. 'It's not revolutionary, but there is a tradition of having a swipe at society. And uniquely among theatre forms, pantomime brings together adults and children to watch a story they know is made up in live theatre.'

Of course, as with all panto seasons, there is many an obscure TV personality and big frilly froak to go around, and outside of Belfast the Millennium Forum in Derry~Londonderry is hosting Peter Pan, while other venues – from the Ardhowen Theatre in Enniskillen to smaller am-dram halls with very little promotional budget to go around – will all be glaming up this Christmas.

But perhaps May McFettridge, the grande dame of Northern Irish pantomime – performed for over 20 years by John Linehan – should have the last line. 'I love, panto as it means I get to go home to my bed afterwards. People get the joke that I'm not one of the camper dames, I'm a straight guy dressed as a woman. It's great for the adults and when you see the kids in the stalls enjoying it, that's magic.'

Check out our What's On event listings for information on events near you this festive season.