At first I’m not sure. The production company has emailed me a secret address in Dublin’s Docklands, but everything seems strangely quiet. Then I pop my head around the door, and hear the dull, unmistakable throb of Queen’s Under Pressure.
I walk up the stairs. The music gets louder. I begin to feel the stomping of feet; hear the snappy shout of a choreographer. I open the studio door, and panto-monium hits me square in the face.
“Pressure! Pushing down on me! Pushing down on you! No man ask for...”
Jedward are springing around the room like electrocuted bunny rabbits. Dozens of kids are shaking their hips and punching the air, dancing in arrow-like formation behind them. The explosion of leg-warmers, sweat pants and day-glo laces, amplified by mirrors on the walls, is like watching the kids from Fame through a kaleidoscope. The energy is sensational. This is the place, all right.
“We’re basically trying to produce the biggest panto that Dublin has ever seen, in terms of cast numbers, production budget and headline act,” says Stuart O’Connor of Spotlight Productions. He seems remarkably calm, given he’s both producing and choreographing the madness that, in just over a week’s time, is scheduled to metamorphose into Cinderella at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre.
“I’ve been involved in panto since 1978,” Stuart explains. “I know it inside out, and there has never been a panto with a headline act as big as Jedward in Dublin. In fact, every theatre in the UK was looking for them. There was talk last January about the O2 devising a panto for Jedward. But we got in there early, did a deal, and now we have them.”
Indeed they do. And in full, Technicolor glory: Edward wears a silver jacket, with yellow baseball cap and golden Hi-Tops. John wears black; his trainers threaded with bright pink laces. Both are vacuumed into skinny jeans, and for once, the quiffs are down. “The taxi driver just came for us, and we were like, whatever,” they say, throwing hot shapes and striking most excellent poses.
“I think they’re funny and I like their hair,” says Allie Moran, nine, from Kildare — one of some 100 chorus kids that have travelled from all over Ireland to rehearse today. “They have their own personality. My Dad thinks they’re idiots, jumping around like two-year-olds, but I think they’re great.”
With Cinderella opening in days, and forecasts of more bad weather on the way, there’s little time to lose in pulling it all together. Stuart shows me photocopies of stage sets — magnificently OTT ballrooms, streetscapes and Cinderella’s stepmother’s kitchen. It all seems a long way from the bare floor boards, messy knapsacks and watchful mirrors of the rehearsal space.
“The scheduling is the biggest challenge,” he says. “Our sets come from the UK. We have ponies coming from Duffy’s Circus. Cinderella’s carriage is coming from London. Louis Copeland is making the costumes for Jedward, but the others are being made in Dublin and the UK. We literally have two days to get the sets in, the lights on, the band in, tech the show, and then open with a matinee.”
After rehearsing Under Pressure, Jedward move to a smaller room for a run-through of the scene where the Prince realises who the slipper fits. Cinderella, played by Jessica Cervi (the 19-year-old who won RTÉ’s Fame: The Musical this year) sits forlornly on a chair. “It’s her,” the prince gushes, as the ugly stepsisters and wicked stepmother chase around like a gaggle of geese.
“You have to get that moment of eyes connecting, and never let go,” the director instructs.
The prince moves in for a big fat snog, and the fairy godmother summons Jedward to wave their wands over the canoodling couple. But wait! It turns out they don’t need the magic wands! “This magic, they’re making themselves,” the fairy godmother swoons. Awww!
Meanwhile, the chorus kids mill around the studios, chatting, snacking, texting and knocking out the occasional dance move. “Jedward are brilliant fun,” says Danielle Byrne, 14, from Baltinglass, Co Wicklow. “They’re just the same as they are on the telly. And they’ll talk to you.”
“They know they’re not the best singers or dancers,” says Gillian Mulpeter, 15, from Dundalk. “They’re just having fun.” Like the other kids in Cinderella, Gillian and Danielle have been rehearsing since mid-term. “There’s no point Jedward being here if we don’t know what we’re doing.”
After the principals break for lunch, I grab a couple of minutes for a chat with Linda Martin. She’s wearing a glittery, purple t-shirt, grey sweat pants and a black pair of ballroom dance sneakers. Her hair is tied back in a no-fuss ponytail, and her face says focus, focus, focus.
“They say never to work with kids or animals,” Linda deadpans. “This year, as well as the children, I’ve got two ponies, one dog and Jedward. But at least I finally get to be a good person! Normally I’m the evil queen or a wicked stepmother, but this year I’m the fairy godmother and Jedward are my fairy godsons. I’m going to have a blonde wig and lovely sparkly silver clothes!”
She remembers her grandparents buying her panto tickets as a child. “It was just wonderful, that magical thing that happens when the sparkles start and the prince meets Cinderella. The magic is in the innocence... Everything is overdone in panto. It’s slapstick, old music hall, dancing, singing, and it’s all modern music as well... It’s a wonderful introduction for kids to theatre.”
“Panto is an institution in Dublin,” Stuart O’Connor agrees. “Think back to the old days of Danny Cummins, Maureen Potter.... It is amazing when you go into the theatre and you see the live acting, the stage, the lights and sound. I remember as a kid, watching the musical director standing up to start the show. There is that buzz. You know you’re at a live show.”
This isn’t the first time Linda has worked with Jedward, she confides. “I know them since before they were famous. I work with Louis [Walsh] a lot, and I did a crash course in show business with them just before they went on X-Factor. How to work with microphones, how to sing through, what the producer does, what the director does, and top of the list — how to say please and thank you.
“I just love them. They’re the best role models for kids these days. They’re 18 years of age, they don’t smoke, they don’t drink, they don’t even go clubbing. They go home to their Mam. It’s an attitude, I think. It’s honesty. A very childish honesty. People tend to be in comfort zones and they don’t want to come out of them, but with Jedward, the whole world is a comfort zone.”
“We generally don’t tell where we’re rehearsing in case we’re plagued,” Stuart tells me. “It’s bad enough trying to control everything in here, without crowds gathering outside.”
Suddenly, out of nowhere, John performs a full somersault in the corridor. Ba-boom, thwack! He just about lands on his feet, in a hunkered position, with baseball cap floating to the floor beside him. Nobody knows quite whether to applaud, or to thank God he hasn’t broken his neck.
If Jedward didn’t exist, I really don’t think you could invent them. Now 18, it’s a full year since they exploded across our screens on The X-Factor. Everyone predicted they would fizzle away after their 15 minutes of fame. They did the opposite. While earnest Joe McElderry is entering the charts at No 68, Jedward are a showbiz comet having the time of their lives.
Today, it’s panto rehearsals. Tonight, it’s a charity auction for Great Ormond Street. On Tuesday, they’re off to South Africa, filming a TV ad for MoneySupermarket.com. Yesterday, they sang and danced in front of more than 6,000 people in Navan. “We spent 30 minutes signing autographs. We were so fast, it was like rat-a-tat-tat...” Edward says, spraying imaginary bullets down the corridor.
“It’s really weird, ‘coz like, everybody was saying that X-Factor is the biggest thing you’re ever going to do,” he says. “But it’s just gotten better.”
Jedward are compiling songs for a new album, talking to British TV stations (“it could be a Saturday morning show, or it could be an actual show where there’s an actual script and you have to act”) and there’s even talk of entering this year’s Eurovision.
“We’re always up for doing everything. Lots of people have private lives and they go socialising and stuff. Me and John don’t have that. Everything we do is like, doing stuff. No matter what Louis throws at us, we always do it. You have to be accessible to your fans.”
“We’re like Louis’s Mini-Me’s,” John chirps.
First up, however, there’s Cinderella. Jedward were signed up in March with a reported fee of €100,000 (pre-sales have already justified the outlay). I ask John to describe their roles. He waits till I turn my recorder on, before taking off like a drag racer.
“Basically we’re really excited about Christmas, OK, ‘coz like it’s time to spend time with family and friends. It’s really cool, and we’re getting ready for Cinderella. We’re on the back of all the buses right now, it’s really cool, and we play the fairy godsons of Linda Martin.”
“Linda is basically the fairy godmother, but King Louis (Walsh) is going to appear by video in the show, so he sends us as a trick up his sleeve,” Edward adds. “We’re basically the recession-busters. It’s like, buy one, get one free. So basically we help Linda out and make her cooler and more hip.”
The boys remember coming to see Linda in panto as kids living in Lucan and are tickled by the thought that fans might remember their first panto in the same way. They’re fluffy and spaced-out, sure, but hugely likeable and totally unpretentious. Even up close, mind you, I can’t tell them apart. “I think John is the more dominant one,” says the Irish Examiner photographer. “Or is it Edward?”
By late afternoon, everyone re-convenes in the main rehearsal space, where the technical crew is arriving to view a full run-through of the show. Several tables are lined with laptops, bottles of water and the odd packet of fags. The kids churn in, squeezing up against the walls.
A shout goes up: “This is a rehearsal now, so everyone zip it!”
The music kicks off and, on cue, the kids spring onto the floor, moving like a shoal of fish, shaking butts, thrusting tummies and using every square inch of the boards in such a dizzying display of enthusiasm and energy, it feels like they could blow Sunday clean off the calendar.
The ugly sisters follow, knocking out the obligatory wise-cracks from Fiona Looney’s script. “Welcome to Nama-land,” they cackle. “Where Old King Cowen looks after the poor... bankers!”
The Apprentice, Eurovision, bailouts and Bertie Ahern are all ribbed. “I haven’t felt that good since Wayne Rooney asked me if I’d take cash,” Cinderella’s stepmother hoots. It’s risqué. It’s raucous. But hey, it’s panto.
Finally, the moment we’ve been waiting for. Linda Martin enters, lamenting her advancing years. “I just don’t want to end up like Fairy Godmother Twinkle,” she says.
The solution to her dilemma? We hear the opening notes of Under Pressure. Jedward leap onto the boards like coiffured Duracell bunnies. The kids cheer, piling into formation behind them, striking poses, thumping fists. It’s like a human flower blooming to the tune of I’m Your Man.
“You’re my new apprentices!” the Fairy Godmother squeals with delight, before a slightly more worried complexion dawns. “But how do I know you’ll behave yourselves?”
* Cinderella runs at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre from December 22 to January 9.