Frank Mackey's diary of a panto dame

As Frank Mackey marks two decades on the panto stage, he shares his behind the scenes diary, revealing what it’s like to write and bring a production of this magnitude to life at Cork Opera House.

Cork Opera House panto is a Cork tradition. Families have been flocking to panto at the Emmet Place venue for generations. Over the last decade panto has become a production that can stand up with West End shows.

As writer but also the actor who brings Nanny Nellie to life I’m in a unique position. It’s very different to acting roles, where you get a script and take on a character. I live and breathe her, I know her every thought because I created her. No one knows her better than me because for three months each year I am her. This year I wanted to give an insight into what goes into bringing a panto icon like Nanny Nellie from paper to life.

Frank Mackey as Nanny Nellie in the Cork Opera House pantomime, Aladdin. Picture: Denis Minihane

Come on a journey with me...

January

It’s official. The magic carpet will land at Cork Opera House in November 2018! We’ve still 15 shows of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to go and we’re already talking about the next panto. On my third last performance of Snow White I’m met by a lovely young mom telling me how much she enjoyed the show, she was standing there with her daughter who had just seen her first panto. 

This woman asked if I remembered her, apparently she had met me when she was a child herself at panto 14 years ago. I was floored, sometimes you forget that Nanny is now at the age when she has really been entertaining audiences in Cork for generations, and yet I haven’t aged a day – that’s the real magic of panto! Panto closes on January 21 and we all let our hair down for the cast closing party, we should be exhausted after the run, but we’re full of energy on the back of the success of the run. 

It’s an emotional time as we’re all saying goodbye, but for many of the team we know we’ll see them again in nine months’ time when we start rehearsals for Aladdin.

February

Before the last piece of glitter from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has been cleared from the stage, we’re starting the process of writing the script for Aladdin. 

I work with the director, and my co-writer Trevor Ryan on taking this traditional story, adding some modern twists and of course incorporating Nanny Nellie. 

We start work on pulling together initial ideas and thoughts in February. This involves a plot line and importantly the characteristics of our leads. Together we figure out who the characters are, I conjure them up in my head so I get to know them and it makes it easier to know how they’ll behave when I write their lines. We’ve already cast two roles – Michael Grennell will play Abanazar and Adam Colbeck-Dunn will play Wishee Washee (Aladdin’s brother). 

I’ve worked with Michael many times, he’s an incredible actor and is a great addition to the team. This year Michael plays a great baddie which he will do brilliantly, the audience love to hate him! We found Adam three years ago and we keep bringing him back, he’s an honourary Cork man at this stage. Adam and Nanny are a wonderful comedy duo that the smallies and grown-ups in the audience lap up.

March

Before I tell you where I am, remember that while you are relaxing with mince pies and mulled wine over Christmas I’m working flat out! So right now I’m lying in the sunshine. I’ve just heard some kids singing Babyshark – surely we can have some fun with that….

But it’s not all rest for the month of March, I’m also heading to London to see some shows, making sure that what we’re producing is on a par with the best productions. Cork audiences expect (and deserve) the best, and we’re delighted that they don’t have to travel any further than Emmet Place to see it.

I’m spending a lot of time thinking about the character of Jasmine, I don’t want her to be a typical fairy-tale princess – I want her to reflect the girls and young women of Cork – she needs to be strong, independent, more feminist than frills!

April

Trevor has just agreed timelines for Aladdin with Eibhlín Gleeson, CEO at Cork Opera House and the production team. Auditions in Cork, Dublin and London have been scheduled and deadlines agreed. The marketing team have been in touch with draft scripts for the first radio ads, I’ll be going into studio next week to record them.

Time for the serious writing to begin. I have to gather together all of my notes - from my phone, from my notebooks, from conversations with Trevor, snippets of overheard conversation, inspirations from productions I’ve seen. I’ll start pulling the first draft together before I sit down with Trevor again. 

Frank Mackey

Trevor is also better placed to put in the hilarious Corkisms. I’m from Cork but I spend over half the year out of the city so it takes me a while to become re-immersed in it, like! That said I’ve all the Nanny-isms, the dirty lookin eejit, the doo doo do, and the howyagettinons?

May

The big news from London auditions is our Genie, Aladdin and Jasmine have all been found – and they’re all Irish. It’s important for us to pick the best and brightest to shine on the Cork Opera House stage, but the actors also have to understand what we’re trying to achieve. A knowledge of the Irish sense of humour is essential. It’s also a great honour to be able to provide a platform for existing and emerging Irish stars.

Now that I’ve met all of the principles, it’s much easier to write the script. I’m having lots of fun with Abanazar – I’ve taken some inspiration from the ITV sitcom, Vicious, featuring Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi. I’m researching a new dance for Adam too – apparently flossing is so passé!

Our Genie – Barry Keenan – is magical. We’re going with a blue genie – you wouldn’t believe how hard it was to find a bald blue man in Ireland, who can sing and act but there he was hanging out in London, looking for a reason to come home to Ireland for a while.

The principles, the ensemble have now been selected and the dance captain appointed. The team dynamic is so important, they need to be able to work well together and also manage complete panto immersion for three months.

June/July

I’m writing almost every day now, I handwrite everything initially. I even keep one beside my bed – ideas come at all times of day and night.

Last night I woke with the idea that Nanny’s dress would become the washing line in one of the scenes. I know our incredible costume designer Joan Hickson can bring this crazy idea to life! I spoke to her today and she’s on a shopping trip in London – not for herself but for Nanny. 

Only the best will doo doo do for Nanny Nellie. 

We take our inspiration for Nanny from Mary Poppins, Dame Edna, Danny la Rue, but Joan also looks at historical costumes from the 18th and 19th century and takes inspiration from designers like Dior, Gucci, Chanel, Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen.

Frank Mackey as Nanny Nellie in the Cork Opera House pantomime, Aladdin. Picture: Denis Minihane

August

Intermediates and junior dancers have been selected from Cork auditions. The panto family is now complete. For the second year in row we are delighted to have Ciarán Connolly on board as choreographer.

Myself and Trevor are working very closely getting the script to the next stage. We’ve such different styles which helps create a much broader appeal. Our productions really do appeal to everyone – jokes that a child will laugh at, jokes the grown-ups will chuckle at (and go completely over the child’s head), fantastic storylines, mesmerising scenery and costumes, incredible dance routines, special effects and the magic – so much magic.

September

I’ve just spent 90 minutes sitting in a chair while our world-class makeup and wig artist, Maeve Readman transformed me. The makeup is complete, the dress is on and as Maeve adjusts the wig I turn and look in the mirror – and there’s Nanny Nellie winking back at me. 

She’s here boys and girls. Nanny is back! Cork is in glorious sunshine and we’re in full costume, make up and wigs (poor Barry is in Genie Blue) and we’re standing on the runway at Cork Airport. 

Aladdin’s carpet has been cleared for take-off by the great people at the airport, who are allowing us take some fantastic PR photos here. What a sight for the unsuspecting passengers as Nanny went sideways through the detectors at security.

October

On Tuesday October 30 the full company come together. The Opera House team haven’t even had a chance to recover from jazz weekend and we’re in and full of enthusiasm. I don’t know how the producer Rory Murphy does it. Here we are, a full team gathered together in Cork at 10am on the Tuesday after a bank holiday weekend.

Contracts in place, accommodation for the out of towners arranged, scripts in hand, and ready for action. Interim CEO of Cork Opera House, Ashley Keating gives a rallying welcome to us all and we’re off – three months of rehearsals, tech, costume fittings and 66 performances all start from today. I can feel it in the air, there’s something really special about this cast, all here in Cork to remake Aladdin into our story.

Frank Mackey as Nanny Nellie in the Cork Opera House pantomime, Aladdin. Picture: Denis Minihane

November

Today we’ve done our first full run through in front of an audience (well, some Opera House staff but still an audience). The dancing, the singing, the jokes, the acting and the story – it works. We’re tired but energised and looking forward to moving from studio into the Opera House. We’re ready.

It’s November 27, we are days away from opening night now and we’ve just finished our dress rehearsal. Of course there were lumps and bumps that needed to be smoothed out before opening but it was just brilliant. Opening night is upon us and I’m just about to step out onto the Opera House stage for the 14th year (this year though is my 20th panto). 

I’ve left Frank in the dressing room and I’m Nanny Nellie. I’m ready to step from the wings to the stage, through the magical portal where you’re someone else, in another world, where your job is to make people happy, make them smile, make them forget about whatever they’ve left outside the doors of the theatre and make them believe in magic… 

All the work, it’s all worth it for this. This feeling, it’s addictive. It’s why I love what I do. Here I come boys and girls…. Doo Doo Do!


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