From camp to lamp: behind the scenes at the panto

It's an hour before curtain in the Cork Opera House and everyone’s stirring in preparation for their first sell-out show of the season.

From camp to lamp: behind the scenes at the panto

Interns peg it out of the venue, returning with supplies for the props that are still being built in the Half Moon Theatre — now a half-way house for the overflow from the theatre’s biggest money spinner.

As I round a corner I walk smack, bang into a table full of scimitars. Stumbling backwards I nearly knock over shelves full of decorative oriental fans and then nearly pass out when confronted with a lifeless Chinese dragon awaiting possession in a darkened corridor.

A magic carpet is prepared for flight in the wings, while high above glitter-splattered techies are giving last minute safety checks to insure the hoops, ropes and trapeze used by the aerialist Angela Saez-Garciaare are secure for her to spin, swing and swoop down from.

Costume designer Joan Hickson and team are crammed over sewing machines, bedazzling outfits with more glitter, more jewels and more colour. “We were watching the first preview last night,” she says, “seeing how the costumes reacted to the lights, what needed to stand out more to really wow the audience. They demand a spectacle.”

With 500 costumes in the show, after each performance Margaret O’Flynn nips around to all the dressing rooms gathering up the performers’ whites. “Bras, knickers, vests, socks,” she says. “For everything else, there are boxes of Fabreze to stamp out the stench of sweat.” She used to be a dancer in the venue’s pantos — “about 300 years ago!” Michael Joseph (Wishee Washee) jokes, as he drops clothes off for alteration. When her niece usurped her and she had her own son in 1980, she took a role in the costume department and she has been here ever since.

Others are keeping it in the family too. Last year the Wicked Queen’s daughters alternated the role of Alice in Wonderland, while in the make-up department I meet Maeve Readman, who is helping her mother, Jeannie, put the slap on the cast.

“If there is an 11am matinee we are in with the cleaners,” she tells me, as she brushes one of the 50 wigs used in Aladdin. (Six alone belong to the Dame Frank Mackey — each one specifically fit to his head, including a blue rinse with an actual washing line between the buns.) “We don’t get out till about midnight. Most wigs have to be rebrushed because of the way they are ripped off in the rapid scene changes and then there are numerous hair and beard extensions that need to be taken out and put away.”

Mackey and Karen Tynan, aka Princess Jasmine, are first in the chair. “I was one of the hand maidens in director Brian Flynn’s first panto 12 years ago,” she tells me, neglecting to add she was one end of a cow. “It’s a great grounding in the demands of the profession. You get a sense of what it’s like to work professionally, the long hours, the sacrifices.”

The panto runs sometimes up to seven days a week, often twice a day, with additional matinees falling out of the sky like molten rocks, obliterating planned lie-ins.

Mammies and daddies drop the 30 ‘chorus’ children off at the stage door, with their little Michella buns already applied. Jeannie does workshops with them early on in rehearsals, but for those whose parents might not be adept with the Mac brush, chaperone Marian O’Brien calms nerves, fixes faces and makes sure that the needs of the three teams of ten are being catered for.

“Berocca, Berocca, Berocca,” Michael Joseph tells me when I ask what the most important thing in his dressing room is. “There’s Halls Soothers everywhere, and a chiropodist and ice packs at hand.” While everyone else has to worry about losing the holiday pounds, the cast of the panto need to pile them back on. “You can’t go out on stage after a big meal because of the dance routines, so your diet gets better. Fruit, salads, no fizzy drinks. Everyone loses weight.”

It must be tough missing out on the spoils of the season? “We have Kris Kindle and the like, and on the final matinee the tech guys always try and make us laugh. Last year they glued toilet roll to the good fairy’s shoes so she went flying across the stage with it on her foot. Another year they didn’t put me back on the ground, just had me lingering above the stage for a whole scene. And they’re always replacing props with random items, like instead of a sword there might be a banana.”

Then there are the things that are not planned. “Like the time Jack fell down the trapdoor instead of climbing up the Beanstock. Or when Buttons fell through the wall of the set. You know that’s not supposed to happen and the audience knows that that’s not supposed to happen. So it becomes part of the show to see how you will adapt, with hundreds of people looking on and screaming at you.”

Over the tannoy, the five-minute call is made and I slip away. A hair extension has been found on the side of the stage, causing as much panic as an unattended bag at an airport, as the techies scrabble to trace its owner.

Some of the cast are sneaking out the stage door for last minute fags, while others say a little prayer. With 45,000 ‘bums on seats’ to be entertained this Christmas, there might even be a few magic lamps being rubbed.

nAladdin is at Cork Opera House until Jan 18. [url=http://www.corkoperahouse.ie/]www.corkoperahouse.ie[/url

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