Leave the politics for panto as Snow White sparkles at the Millennium Forum

Former contestant on The Voice, Rachael O'Connor, on going from young audience member to lead star back home in the Forum's festive production

William Caulfield as Nurse Molly Coddle with leading star Rachael O'Connor

Magic mirror on the wall, can panto save us from the Brexit squall? Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Millennium Forum promises to provide a welcome fairytale escape from election exhaustion. The beloved seasonal soirée will run throughout the month of December, and audiences can expect a belly full of laughter and a generous helping of Derry panto humour.

Culture NI met up with Snow White herself, played by homegrown talent Rachael O’Connor, to get us into the festive spirit. Fresh from Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance tour, O’Connor is no stranger to gruelling rehearsal schedules and assures she is fighting fit for a month of panto performances. 'The flu jab was got, a steamer bought and I’ve started taking my vitamins so my mammy will be buzzing, she laughs. 'I’m all set!'

Encompassing all the attributes of a real-life fairytale princess, O’Connor has my daughter completely captivated despite not being in her ‘princessy’ regalia. Although she had been warned Snow White would be dressed as a ‘normal girl’ today to blend in, none of that matters as she nudges me for an introduction.

O’Connor listens graciously as my toddler kicks off proceedings with the question we all want an answer to; ‘Who’s your favourite ‘snow wharf’ (dwarf to the rest of us)?’ It’s Dopey for all you eager to know. Three-year-olds prefer ‘the Grumpy one’ apparently – reminiscent of characters close to home, no doubt.

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O'Connor along with Karen Hawthorne playing The Wicked Queen

Passing the baton of conversation to yours truly, O’Connor recounts a long-held love of the Forum ‘where it all started.’ Having previously starred in their stratospherically successful youth theatre productions, she went on to star in TV’s The Voice and is currently signed to a Swedish management company with hopes to release her own music next year.

'It’s so lovely being back at the Forum especially getting to work alongside old co-stars,' she says. 'As a teenager I remember being totally in awe of Keith Lynch’s performance as Sweeney Todd. To have the opportunity to share the stage with him again is great.'

More accustomed to performing to audiences overseas, O'Connor admits always overthinking performances on home turf. 'There’s a sense of added pressure of not wanting to disappoint the home crowd but once you’re out there everyone is always so welcoming, rooting for you to do well'.

Despite a wealth of experience, Snow White will mark the 22-year-old’s first dalliance with the world of pantomime. A ‘dream come true’, she tells me her involvement brings things full circle as Christmas panto was a long-standing tradition in the O’Connor household.

'Every year my Nana would have the tickets booked well in advance for me and my cousins,' she recalls. 'I have fond memories of getting our sweeties and eagerly waiting, excited for the show to start. I was always jealous of the wee kids on stage and wanting to be a part of it all. Then as I got older, I set my sights on the main role and now here we are!'

A somewhat shared experience for many a family in the city, Christmas in Derry means a night at the Forum. As the only professional pantomime in the North West region, it’s enduring popularity is owed in part to panto veteran William Caulfield, who this year plays Nurse Molly Coddle. A local treasure, Caulfield is as integral to Derry Christmas panto as the sausage roll is to a sausage roll bap - without them, these local delicacies just don’t pack the same punch.

So it’s of no surprise that O'Connor affirms he is indeed ‘the biggest laugh’ to work with. 'I’ve not managed to keep a straight face once in rehearsals,' she says. 'I swear he purposely tries to make me break character. 'You never know what to expect with William, he’s always changing up his lines, adding new jokes here and there. He’s a real professional.'

Maintaining the best bits of the Snow White classic tale, this year’s panto is set to amaze with plenty of modern power ballads to boot. There are songs from Jess Glynn, Taylor Swift and the recently cemented panto staple ‘Greatest Show’, the crowd reaction to which blew the roof off the Forum at its Peter Pan production last year.

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'It’s a really special moment in the show,' O'Connor agreeds, 'with the full band behind us, a fantastic set production and beautiful costumes, it’s a sight to behold.'

Expecting a lot of singing, a lot of dancing and hopefully a lot of laughing, the Drumsurn musician urges people all ages to come along for what promises to be a spectacular night of good old-fashioned fun. 'It’s not just for kids!' she stresses. Characterized by its penchant for the downright silly, hand-in-hand with the Derry humour where we all love a good laugh at our own expense, nowhere does panto quite like the Maiden City.

So whether you’re a Remainer or Leaver, at least the festive feel good factor of panto is something that everyone can agree on. Oh yes it is!

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs opens at the Millennium Forum on December 4 and runs until Sunday December 29, including a signed performance (BSL &ISL) Thursday December 5 at 7.00pm and specially adapted Relaxed and Dementia Friendly performance on Sunday December 15 at 2.00pm. 

Tickets are now available at the Box Office. Telephone 02871264455 or visit www.milleniumforum.co.uk.