It’s good to be bad: Jolene O’Hara on finding her wicked side in panto

Belfast actor and singer Jolene O’Hara has enjoyed a year on the move - from classical concerts and Van Morrison gigs to punk and panto. Gail Bell caught up with the Wicked Queen to find out the appeal of her latest role

Belfast actor and singer Jolene O'Hara

AFTER “far too many years” acting the princess, Jolene O’Hara is happy to be out of her gilded cage and lapping up the loathing as a wicked queen in panto land this season.

It is a much longed-for volte-face for the Belfast actress and singer who jumped gleefully into the oversized shoes of an Ugly Sister in last year’s production of Cinderella at the Grand Opera House.

Back this year as Queen Dragonella for the theatre’s production of Snow White, the role represents a “real graduation” from buffoonery to “total baddie” for the versatile performer who off-stage is one half of real-life sister act, the O’Hara Sisters, with sibling Philippa, as well as being a touring singer with Van Morrison.

“This is my second big panto with the Grand Opera House and it really is so much fun,” she says. “Playing the Wicked Queen is kind of the ultimate role in panto for me because you just have so much more craic with an evil character. At every performance I won’t be able to wait for the ‘boos’ – that’s when you know you’ve done your job well.”

Starring again with panto favourites May McFettridge (John Linehan) as ‘May of the Mirror’ and Paddy Jenkins (the Wicked Queen’s henchman), she also joins Phil Walker (son of former Catchphrase presenter, Roy Walker) as Muddles, Aisling Sharkey from Dublin (in the title role of Snow White) and Lurgan’s Conor Headley (the Prince) - along with dance troupe, Flawless, as the Queen’s Guards.

Jolene O'Hara as Queen Dragonella for Grand Opera House's production of Snow White

“It’s a brilliant cast and panto creates that magic that allows us all to become a child again and shout and scream as much as we like,” enthuses O’Hara, who is finishing up a hectic year which saw her sing with Van Morrison, perform at the Lush! classical concerts with the Ulster Orchestra and star in acclaimed punk musical, Good Vibrations, in New York. Before panto rehearsals began earlier in December, she also managed to fit in a month-long holiday adventure to Thailand with restaurant manager - and “total ‘Muggle’” (non-acting) - boyfriend, Joe Quigley.

For the girl who set out to be an engineer – she holds a Bachelor’s degree in product design engineering from Queen’s University – switching roles from singer to actor and back again is one of the joys of the job.

“I didn’t go down the formal stage school route – at that time, the big chunk of water between Northern Ireland and London seemed so much bigger than it is today and it never really entered my head that going to drama school could be a ‘thing’,” she says.

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“But, I was always singing – my dad used to play in showbands and one of my earliest memories is of Elaine Paige singing the haunting Memory in Cats. I was all for doing my Master’s degree in engineering, but by the end of the third year I had done my first panto with Michael Poyner and the Ulster Youth Theatre, as well as a DOE motor safety advert, and it started to dawn on me that I might actually be able to make a living out of this.”

Singer and actor Jolene O'Hara

She has been lucky to travel too: as well as the Good Vibrations musical charting the life of Belfast punk legend, Terri Hooley, opening in the Irish Arts Center in New York, gigs with the Morrison saw her performing to huge crowds at venues in Amsterdam and Portugal.

“I’ve always been a fan of Van’s music; he’s a genius,” she says. “I was honoured to be approached to sing backing vocals on his album, Moving on Skiffle, but it was even more amazing to be invited to work with him on the live shows. He keeps moving forward and doing new stuff, like the skiffle project and now his homage to rock n’roll with the Accentuate the Positive album. I love all that. I think my favourite song is Lucille – I get to do a wee bit of a duet with him.”

Another highlight - and role reversal – has been resurrecting her Polly the Punk character and upping the attitude again in Good Vibrations which, after opening at the Lyric in 2018, returned to the Grand Opera House in May this year before transferring to the Irish Arts Centre in New York for a summer run over June and July.

“It’s such a great show and it translated really well to New York audiences,” says O’Hara. “Obviously, a lot of Irish people came out to see it, but everyone really got it; they picked up on all the local nuances, too.

“The great thing about the Irish Arts Center theatre is the way it’s laid out – when you come off stage, you have to go through the foyer and the bar area where everyone hangs around after the show. We got talking to so many people from all over the world, many with connections to Belfast and to punk music. It was so bizarre. I had never seen a theatre like that before.”

The signs are, so far, that 2024 will be shaping up into another busy year, with the O’Hara Sisters (formerly known as the Songbirds) rebooked as vocalists for the ever-popular Lush! classical concerts at Botanic Gardens in June and SSE Arena in October, in addition to their own gigs at concerts, festivals weddings and various private events.

“It’s great to wear so many different hats – I think you need to wear as many as you can, working in this industry,” adds the singer whose next dream role would be in a television “action-based” series.

“There is so much going on in Northern Ireland at the moment, with programmes like Hope Street and Blue Lights,” she says. “We are really very lucky. I would love something like that - action-based. I hate romantic stuff. You never really know what will come up next, but right now I feel like the luckiest Wicked Queen in the world.”

:: Snow White runs at the Grand Opera House in Belfast until January 14 2024. goh.co.uk