Oh yes it is... panto's back for 2021
As panto season returns to our theatres, Jenny Lee discovers what on and catches up with Northern Ireland's two longest-serving pantomime dames, William Caulfield and John Linehan
OH yes it is... After lying empty last Christmas due to Covid restrictions, our theatres are once again filling with the sounds of singing and laughter as panto makes its seasonal return.
The age old pantomime tradition of presenting a tale where good triumphs over evil remains the same.
However, the pandemic does present some changes – mask wearing audiences, no children being invited on-stage and no chocolates being fired into the audiences.
One thing audiences to Derry's Millennium Forum may be grateful for is that its resident dame William Caulfield won't be "rifling through" audiences' bags.
"There would be elements in the show where the cast would have gone into the audience. I was notorious for walking down and rifling through some poor woman's handbag, so they can all feel safe this year," says William, who in his 15th year at the Forum is playing Nanny Cranny in Sleeping Beauty.
"I bring the child that the stork delivers to the King and Queen. They are so pleased that they pronounce me to be the Royal nanny.
"I overlook Sleeping Beauty and the house with a warm heart and a sharp tongue," says William, who is delighted to be back on stage.
"I think because we weren't here last year everyone is over enthusiastic and delighted to get back doing it."
The Donaghadee-based comic has moved into an Airbnb for the panto run, which he has affectionately called 'Nanny's Nook', and he's been getting himself fit for the long panto run.
"I'm fortunate my gym has a branch in Derry and I'm also doing a lot of walking, including the beautiful Waterside Greenway, between the two bridges in the city."
Caulfield, who is renowned for his tribute shows to the legendary Belfast comedian, James Young, models his panto dame characters on him - and that includes the make-up.
"Blue eyeshadow, with a strip of white, was one of Jimmy's trademarks," says William, who buys and applies all the make-up himself.
"I go into Boots every December and join the women who are standing looking at their powders and lipstick and try to lift the eyeshadow and bits I need without drawing too much attention to myself. Thank goodness for self-check-outs," he laughs.
"The very first time I did dame I let the girls to do my make-up, but it took ages and when I saw myself in the mirror completely made up I knew there wasn't a chance I would be able to do that again myself," says William, who can now apply his own in just four minutes.
So, would he ever wear make-up outside panto? "No, not a chance," he giggles. "I love to get it wiped off and turn back into me."
Having not staged Sleeping Beauty in 11 years, William promises Millennium Forum audiences a panto that is "fresh", "professional" and filled with "special effects" and "cheer".
And does he have a solo number? "I try to avoid it, but let's say in the school room I do have my own little verse."
Another beloved face that was missed last panto season was May McFettridge, aka John Linehan, who is taking part in his 31st Grand Opera House panto.
The Belfast dame is thrilled to be back on stage, where he plays May McFetty in Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
"I really didn't think it was going to happen. You don't know what way the Hill (Stormont) will go yet, but anyway we're ready."
However, he warns audiences, and politicians, he will be handing out plenty of stick. "I missed last year and I'm sure they missed me. I will give them all the abuse they want," he laughs.
Whilst he enjoyed spending more time with his grandchildren last year, Linehan says his wife, Brenda, is also glad to see him back on stage.
"I was under Brenda's feet every day and she kept encouraging me to go for a walk or go up to the golf club.
"I am a past captain of Fortwilliam Golf Club and one bonus of being off was that I was able to see their Christmas prize draw for the first time."
John hasn't been without his health troubles, suffering Covid in 2020 and undergoing knee replacement surgery.
"I got a new knee mid-July, and when I was on the crutches I put my back out. I'm still wearing a harness on my back. I'm getting stronger each day, but the lifts and the back flips I normally do won't be happening," jokes John, who is excited to be starring in a panto he's never performed before.
For five weeks the theatre will be transformed into a big top with circus skills, hair-raising stunts and live music, where everything is possible, and anything could (and will) happen.
Dame May McFetty and her daughter Goldilocks's circus is under threat from an evil rival circus owner and, with the help of their madcap circus friends, they're battling to rescue their Big Top from ruin.
"I have three bears who not only talk but they dance and they sing and she tries to capture them," he reveals.
And will we see May doing any juggling on stage?
"Are you kidding me? I can't walk and chew gum at the same time. I'm just happy staying on my feet," he laughs.
Whilst John is a veteran of pantomime, Cinderella is played by 19-year-old Londoner Kia-Paris Walcott, who is taking part in her first professional panto.
"My advice to Kia is simply to enjoy it," says John. "She's just joined in everything and loves the craic of Belfast."
And what does Kia make of Dame May?
"May is a lovely, lovely woman. She's made me so comfortable in rehearsals and helped me get to know everyone. I had never been to Belfast before, so it's very exciting doing panto here.
"It's a magical experience for young children when they see one of their favourite stories come to life and see a character they know, like Goldilocks, singing," adds Kia, who encourages audiences to sing along to some of the show's better known songs, like Hot Stuff.
Meanwhile, at Belfast's Waterfront Hall audiences can join the beautiful Cinderella in the timeless rags to riches fairytale. This GBL productions panto features glittering scenery, beautiful costumes, laugh-out-loud comedy and plenty of boos and hisses for all the family to enjoy.
And for those looking for an alternative to pantomime, Replay Theatre Company, in association with the MAC, presents The Untold Truth of Captain Hook.
The epic theatrical adventure through the time before Neverland features Lost Boys, shipwrecks, mermaids, crocodiles, and pirates in the search for truth.
:: Sleeping Beauty runs until January 2 (Millenniumforum.co.uk); Goldilocks and the Three Bears runs until January 9 (Goh.co.uk); Cinderella runs from December 3 to January 2 (Waterfront.co.uk) and The Untold Truth of Captain Hook runs from December 10 to January 1 (Themaclive.com).