They’re behind you! A look behind the scenes of panto at Cork Opera House

We all just go along and enjoy the panto. But Jo Kerrigan finds out about some of the work that goes into the show when she goes behind the scenes at Cork Opera House

They’re behind you! A look behind the scenes of panto at Cork Opera House

GOING to the pantomime is one of the most enduring traditions of the Christmas season and we love every moment of it. Yet what we see is only half the picture. If you could look backstage, you would realise just how much frantic work it takes to make it happen.

As Brendan Galvin, production manager on Beauty and the Beast at Cork Opera House, knows only too well. Anything that happens on the stage, it’s the production manager’s job to make sure it all fits together and works. From last spring he’s been working with the creative team to ensure that.

Sometimes it’s not all plain sailing. “They might have an ingenious idea, and you have to say, hang on a minute, that can’t work because...”

Health and safety regulations are ever-present, plus purely practical facts. If you have just moved that set over there, how are your principals going to get over here? Or, if you need to change that huge scene, then you’ll need a drop cloth and something else going on in front of it while that’s happening.) Are we using traps? Flying? Pyrotechnics are a whole problem of their own.

“Everybody loves them, but you have to have a fully-qualified pyro man to handle them and set them off. Even drivers have to be licensed to carry them in their vehicles.”

Kieran Kennedy at the throne. Pic: Richard Mills
Kieran Kennedy at the throne. Pic: Richard Mills

Onstage is a performance, says Galvin, but backstage it’s a profession. The show should never falter or stop once it’s started, and that’s why so much time is taken to get it right.

SOUND AND VISION

Sound, too, is a huge part of the production. This year they are not using a live orchestra at the Opera House, for sheer cost reasons. “I worked on Riverdance for years, and way back in the beginning they had 15 musicians,” says Galvin. “Now they use about four. It’s all down to cost.”

But in these technological times, he says, most of the quick sound effects come off a keyboard anyway, and that’s what today’s kids are used to. “The musical director in pantos way back always had an electric keyboard for the synthesised sound. The orchestra just played the songs and that was it.”

And there’s someone you never think about, high above the stage, making sure that every scene, every backcloth, drops down exactly when it is meant to. “That’s Billy Moore, one of the best master flymen in the country,” says Galvin. He’s been at it a long time.”

Bronagh Doherty and Alan Lynch wheel out a prop. Pic: Richard Mills
Bronagh Doherty and Alan Lynch wheel out a prop. Pic: Richard Mills

Kay Mahony, the stage manager, can barely draw breath from an hour before the show starts until the curtain is down. Constantly monitoring from her desk, she cues scene changes, sound effects, checks that everything that is meant to happen actually does. “I used to crew backstage on panto, so I know it from the ground up which is the best way to learn,” says Mahony.

It’s like a gigantic jigsaw that only comes together on the final dress rehearsal, says Galvin reflectively. “But it has to go on fitting together perfectly from then on to the final show.”

Joan Hickson, costume designer, has been working with her team on glittering fabrics, magical materials, from midsummer. And it’s not just the onstage effect that needs to be considered, she explains. Quick costume changes, for example.

“If we know about those from the beginning, we can allow for them in the design, but sometimes we don’t realise it until the technical rehearsal. The Dame, of course, always has lots of quick changes and we set ourselves a real challenge this year when the script dictated she would be transformed into a teapot by magic. All her costumes thereafter had to reflect the shape of that teapot.”

Except when she appears as Carmen Miranda. “That costume had to be built on to a fat suit, giving her those emphasised belly-dancer curves.” Yet in the very next scene, the Dame is back in her teapot costume, lounging in an armchair. How do they do it so quickly?

Ah, of course, Velcro.

Well no, actually. “I try to avoid Velcro because it’s a bit harsh on delicate costumes. Good quality zippers are best. I will use buttons if it isn’t a quick change.” (And yes, they always have people standing by with needle and thread for emergencies.)

“Elasticised waists help a lot, but only if they don’t show too much. If someone is meant to be elegantly dressed, then you need smooth waistlines or properly-fitting trousers.” If flying is involved — as The Beast does in this show — that creates its own problems.

“He has to wear a harness underneath his stage clothes so room has to be allowed, and spaces for the links to go through.”

CARNIVAL FEELING

From the start, Hickson is in constant contact with director Trevor Ryan, discussing ideas. “He was undecided between a big underwater scene and one set in Rio. “I said let’s go for Rio, because we can have a lot of fun with that.” She was right.

Teresa Argue and Maeve Readman work on costumes at Cork Opera House. Pic: Richard Mills
Teresa Argue and Maeve Readman work on costumes at Cork Opera House. Pic: Richard Mills

The carnival scene is one of the highlights of the panto, driving away any memory of rain-soaked streets outside with its dancing, music and laughter. She and Trevor were constantly messaging ideas and images as the show developed throughout the autumn, tweaking here, changing there.

“I am still doing that, even though the show has been up and running for ages. I watch from the back of the theatre and think, yes, they could do with bright cummerbunds there, or that costume is looking a teeny bit tired, it needs freshening up… And when I go up to the wardrobe department, there is always something hanging on the back of my chair with a rip in it, or with buttons missing…It never stops really!”

Margaret O’Flynn,has sewn, mended, dressed, averted disasters, for longer than anyone else on the wardrobe team. “No matter how frantic things are, she never gets worked up. ‘It’ll be fine on the night, girl,’ she always says, and miraculously, it always is!”

Margaret O’Flynn. Pic: Richard Mills
Margaret O’Flynn. Pic: Richard Mills

Hard work, but Joan Hickson wouldn’t be anywhere else. “My kids (3 and 7) are coming this year. They will recognise many of the costumes from seeing them strewn around our house in various stages of creation. They are growing up realising there are two sides to any show — what the audience sees, and what goes on behind the scenes!”

Beauty and the Beast runs at Cork Opera House until Jan 17

More in this section