Carrying on a great legacy of panto at the Cork Opera House

The death earlier this year of Cork Opera House panto stalwart Bryan Flynn has made for an emotional show for the cast and crew of Sleeping Beauty, writes Colette Sheridan

Carrying on a great legacy of panto at the Cork Opera House

THE team behind the Cork Opera House pantomime has a hard act to follow as this is the first year in over a decade without the late director, Bryan Flynn, at the helm of the Christmas extravaganza.

Flynn, who died following a long illness earlier this year, is sorely missed. The Waterford-born musical director created spectacular pantomimes for the venue for 12 years. This year’s pantomime, Sleeping Beauty, has been dedicated to the memory of Flynn.

Trevor Ryan will direct and he has co-written the script. The other writer is pantomime veteran, Frank Mackey, who is also playing the Dame. Cork-born Mackey, who works as a stage and TV actor and is based in Dublin, has done the Cork Opera House pantomime for eight years. His blue-rinsed Dame has a dodgy hip and is “still man-mad”. She has been married a number of times, only for her husbands to die in “accidents”.

Mackey is excited about Sleeping Beauty, although he says that it has been a difficult few months for the panto team, who have been adjusting to Flynn’s absence from the set.

“It will be a different show this year, but there will be aspects of Bryan’s legacy,” says Mackey. “His legacy is high production values. And he had a wonderful way of interpreting stories. His shows were almost of Broadway or West End standard. He catapulted panto into the 21st century for Cork audiences. He had such drive and enthusiasm. He was a perfectionist down to the stockings that the children wore.

“There was never any shoddiness or rag-ends in his productions. I only found out, recently, that, in the early days, he used to go to London and work in theatres selling programmes and then he learnt about stage work and lighting cues. He knew what he wanted. I learned a lot from him.”

Mackey says that he and Ryan knew they had a tough task to follow in Flynn’s footsteps. “Trevor’s interpretation of the story of Sleeping Beauty is magical and beautiful. While we’ll still have special effects, Trevor is focusing on bringing the characters to life and telling the story.”

Mackey began his career at Gaiety in Dubliln, before taking up his spot in Cork. “Billa O’Connell had just finished playing the Dame at Cork Opera House. I was very nervous and I wondered how I could fill his shoes. It was quite a daunting prospect. But Bryan asked me to trust him and he said I would play the Dame differently, bringing my own interpretation to it. I developed her over the years. If you look back to eight years ago, I was a little bit amateurish. I hadn’t found my feet. But, now, she is flourishing. I know exactly who she is. She has a back story. She’s loosely based on an aunt of mine in Kerry, who’s dead. There’s a bit of Pauline McLynn’s Mrs Doyle there and Dame Edna, and other characters.”

Mackey says that audiences are “getting used” to his Dame. “It’s like Billa. I’m not saying I’m another Billa, but audiences are getting used to things, like my catchphrases, such as ‘you dirty-looking eejit’.”

When CEO of the Cork Opera House, Mary Hickson, asked Mackey to co-write this year’s pantomime, he wondered if he’d be able for it. “But, then, I was thinking I have eight years in pantomime in Cork and five years in the Gaiety. There must be something in my head. But it was very daunting. Trevor and myself started writing it about five months ago. I locked myself away in my house in Dublin. Once I had the story board, it was great. Once you have that, it’s just a case of writing the plot-lines and making sure the characters are developed and well-rounded. That was hugely exciting. It’s another side of me, artistically, that has come out. It’s wonderful to be able to do it. Trevor was great at the editing. I’d send him scenes to see what worked and what didn’t. Because we know each other very well, we’re both singing off the same hymn sheet,” Mackey says.

He also says that he and Ryan knew instinctively what was funny. “You know what the audience is looking for, so you add in those elements. Trevor has a great sense of humour, a very dry humour. I’m more ‘falling around the place laughing’. We got on great writing the show. There were no artistic differences. It was a huge challenge for Trevor as well,” Mackey says.

Script changes are made right up to the minute, referencing current events, such as the water meters and Twink.” If there’s something in the news, we have to be on top of it. It might just make a one-line gag.”

Appealing to children and adults simultaneously is a challenge. “We’ve kept the magical fairytale and, in the pantomime, we go to the frozen north to save Beauty. That’s a reference to the Frozen animation film that was shown earlier this year. The kids will love it. We have penguin jokes, as well. For the adults, we have stuff that will go over the kids’ heads. It’s double entendre, but it’s not crude.”

Handing over the script to Hickson felt very personal, Mackey says. “I was relieved when she came back and said ‘Lads, well done. You’ve done Bryan proud.’ I was quite emotional.”

Musical direction is by David Hayes (The Voice of Ireland/Riverdance). Young panto performers from various stage schools in Cork are taking part. The cast includes newcomer Katie Honan as Beauty and Cork actor Jason Broderick, who recently had a major part in the West End production based on the life of in Anna Nicole Smith.

“The cast is made up of people who had worked with Bryan, or who wanted to work with him. I feel he has been looking down on us, saying ‘right lads, that’s a wonderful cast.’”

Mackey recalls his first encounter with Beauty at the auditions “This girl, Katie Honan, came on stage and blew us away. I didn’t know anything about her.

“I was later told that Bryan had wanted to work with her. We all loved her so much at that audition. She was amazing.

“She studied drama at the Lir Academy in Dublin. She has a huge singing background. When we heard she was from Waterford, where Bryan is from, we felt ‘This is supposed to be’. People say these things happen for a reason.”

No doubt, Bryan Flynn would approve.

  • Sleeping Beauty is at Cork Opera House from December 13

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