Panto Dame May McFettridge celebrates 30 laughter-packed years
Jenny Lee catches up with May McFettridge, AKA John Linehan, ahead of her 30th appearance as Belfast's favourite panto dame
SHE may be celebrating her 30th anniversary treading the boards at Belfast's Grand Opera House, but this year's pantomime offers a new challenge for Dame May McFettridge.
The legendary battleaxe, who has chalked up around 2,400 appearances on the Grand Opera House stage, will be starring in Beauty and The Beast for the first time – and her alter ego John Linehan admits he had to seek advice from her three-year-old grand daughter Eve when researching the role.
"I had to sit down and watch the movie with Eve to get to know the storyline and see what actually happened," laughs the north Belfast comedian, who is excited by the new challenge.
Since making her pantomime debut in Robinson Crusoe in 1989 alongside comedian Jimmy Cricket, May has appeared with a galaxy of stars including Su Pollard, Linda Nolan, Britt Ekland, Lisa Riley and Zippy, George and Bungle.
This year she will be joined by star of stage and screen Ben Richards (Footballers’ Wives, Holby City, Hollyoaks, The Bodyguard) as well as comedy magician and Britain’s Got Talent favourite Mandy Muden and panto favourites Paddy Jenkins and Georgia Lennon.
Staged by the world’s largest pantomime producer, Qdos Entertainment, the pantomime follows the story of Belle as she finds herself transported to a cursed castle and held captive by a hideous Beast. Can Belle see beyond the monster and fall in love with her captor before the last petal falls from the enchanted rose? Or will the Beast’s selfishness cost him the world he once knew and the hand of the girl who has melted his heart?
Of course, panto is much more than narrative. "This year there are plenty of special features, magic and even a flying car. The kids will love it," says John, revealing May will make a dramatic entrance on a hot air balloon.
"Over the years I've come in on some strange objects. I've been wheeled in in vegetable carts, drove a golf buggy, push bikes and even been lifted on a magic rainbow."
The set and costumes are a feast for the eyes and one of the biggest challenges for the panto dame is fitting in – and out – of the elaborate costumes. "I have eight costume and 10 changes. One of the changes I somehow have to do in just 15 seconds."
And will May be sticking with her trademark blue eye shadow? "Oh yes, she wouldn't be the same without that," adds John, who will be playing the role of Mrs May Potty, a variation of the Mrs Potts castle housekeeper in the Disney story.
May is, of course, the Queen of one liners and this year's unusual December election provides some political fodder for her. "There always something newsworthy that justifies a few lines of comment. There will definitely be a couple of political lines about Boris Johnston and an empty Stormont."
In September, May made her operatic debut in Opera NI's Johann Strauss operetta Die Fledermaus – a thoroughly enjoyable experience, but not one that has made John want to sign up for opera singing classes.
"Die Fledermaus was absolutely brilliant and to be beside those guys delivering their songs and witnessing their pitch was unbelievable."
May will, of course, be singing in Beauty and The Beast, which includes both original and familiar songs – like Flash Bang Wallop from the musical Half a Sixpence, which many will know from Tommy Steele's recording.
"People should come along and enjoy themselves at Beauty and The Beast this Christmas because there is no show in town as spectacular for costumes, sets, special effects and singing – and who wouldn't want to miss seeing May McFettridge dancing?
"A dancer and singer I am not and they have me doing both," laughs John.
:: Beauty and The Beast runs from Saturday November 30 to Sunday January 12. For tickets visit Goh.co.uk