That’s certainly the case for the Cork Opera House. Their panto, Alice in Wonderland, is rumoured to have cost in the region of €250,000. But just because it pulls in three-quarters of the venue’s annual takings doesn’t mean they are tarting it up to attract the punters. Quality is to the fore of what they do. So while chock-full of talent, it is the production itself, and not one performer, that’s the star.
“There is still a tradition of panto here in Cork,” six-time Dame Frank Mackey says. “It goes back to the days of Michael Twomey and Billa O’Connell, for whom the older generation are still nostalgic. And then there is the brilliant job (director) Bryan Flynn has done in making it relevant to the younger crowd.”
His 11th seasonal outing at the venue, it’s a testament to Flynn’s success that the show doesn’t need a “star” to pack them in. “Other venues need to get bums on seats, so they have to go in that direction unfortunately,” says Mackey. “It’s been such a familial event each Christmas here, that that’s what is important. For me it’s great to be able to come down to Cork, as they use actors.”
Despite an attempt to make the D-List glisten, Mackey believes Dublin pantos generally sell slower and less well than their Cork counterparts. “They’ve lost their stars,” he tells me. “You had Maureen Potter, you had Twink, you had June Rogers. There is no name anymore.”
One of Dublin’s beloved panto stars, Michael Grenell, has switched sides this year, joining the cast of Alice in Wonderland as the Red Knave. Long affiliated with the Gaiety, he believes the decision to move away from the tradition of using the aforementioned queens of Pantoland was artistic rather than financial. “There was a tradition of building a panto around a personality, ” he says. “These women were all wonderful performers, very much able to command those stages. But there was a feeling that you weren’t able to portray the story that needed to be told. Very few pantos have leading roles for women of that age. But they were the stars and you were paying them a lot of money — and the public were paying a lot to see them, so you had to make sure they were on stage quite a bit. It’s the same with Jedward. It’s a show built around two young lads. The story takes a back seat.”
Mackey says: “Now they bring in stars who last two weeks and then they get sore throats or throw their back out and they’re off for a few nights. Forget that nonsense. The craft should be learnt. Give it to an actor who can develop it and continue it for a few years.”
He’s the product of such an apprenticeship himself. He started off in the Gaiety, playing a variety of roles, from Wishy Washy to Buttons, before graduating to the Dame. “It helped me a lot doing those sort of parts, just doing panto, getting the hang of the whole format, the delivery. It’s quite unique and takes a couple of roles to get right.”
Grenell agrees. “It’s a completely different kettle of fish. There’s no trying to be clever or doing things in a delicate way. It has to be in-your-face. Big characters, big gestures, big voices. Emotions need to be extreme and clear.”
While there is snobbery towards panto, Grenell believes it to be quite special, especially given that it will be the first time most children experience theatre. “The audience are part of the production. They are asked for their opinion, they are asked to respond, to cheer or to boo. To have that immediate response, where those on stage react to what you are saying and doing, it’s a magical experience.”
The Dame is the conduit with which the audience connects to the action. “For a child she’s some one you feel safe with and actually want to be with,” says Grenell, who’s played the role in several productions.
While the character’s name might change, Mackey’s Dame is always the same ‘woman’. He even adds ailments from year to year. “She’s based on an auld aunt of mine from Kerry. She was a redhead many years ago and she wouldn’t have been as heavy. But I now wear a fat suit underneath the dress, I have a purple rinse, a bad hip and her eyesight has gotten so bad I wear horn-rimmed glasses.”
Playing the Dame means Mackey doesn’t need to worry about piling on the holiday pounds. “You have no idea of the sweat once you get under the hot lights. You have your wig and your padded suit which weighs five to eight pounds. It’s a deluge of waterfalls on my face.” He has a fan off stage and in his dressing room, a sweatband under his wig and Vaseline which helps stop it running down his face and ruining the make-up. “I’m actually quite a shy person but modesty goes out the window when you play this part, people poking you, pulling wringing wet clothes off you to take to the dry cleaners.”
That shyness will be further challenged when he goes into the audience as part of the show this year. “Once you go down you have to spot the ones who will get a good reaction from the crowd and pray that they are going to go along with you. But generally it works a treat. You have people going ‘please don’t let him come near me’. But sure they are willing you to come to them. And if you go to the men dressed as a dame, they are well up for it.”