By Grainne McCool
Christmas in Derry can only mean one thing: Panto time!
It’s the busiest time of the cultural calendar year at Derry’s Millennium Forum.
Young and old alike flock from all over the North West and beyond, to the city centre theatre.
This year is no exception.
However, just what is a pantomime (panto)?
A panto is a version of a story, very often a fairytale. It is normally set in a romanticised vision of the community and celebrated on stage with humour and song.
Love usually triumphs and villains are redeemed. Traditionally the villain enters from stage-left, and hero from stage-right.
It features original song and caricature of popular modern songs.
At all times it contains slapstick, revels in innuendo, and challenges the audience into response with the characters.
It features a dame, and throws sweets to the audience. A child or children are brought onto the stage before completion.
And of course there’s always the danger of someone, or everyone, shouting “He’s behind you!” – Derry Panto 2015 has it all, and more.
Earlier this week I was fortunate to be invited to the annual Press Night of the said panto in Derry.
This year showcases the delightful story of Aladdin. I was accompanied on the night by my cousin and her two children, aged 7 and 9.
The little 7 year old girl had never been to a pantomime and was eagerly awaiting ‘curtain up’.
She told me she had read the book and so knew what to expect. Boy was she surprised throughout the show!
At approximately 7.30pm on the night, it was indeed time for ‘curtain up’.
Over the following three hours it was laughs, claps and cheers from young and old.
I’m sure over 70 per cent of the audience were indeed children, but the inner child in every adult was very much present also (well it was in myself and my cousin).
There was of course the base story of Aladdin but with so much more intertwined throughout the performance.
I think seeing through a child’s eyes is always best.
Little Áine (7) was beside me. She laughed from start to finish and was mesmerised most especially with Aladdin flying to Egypt.
She just couldn’t understand how he could fly on the mat upon the stage. To see her believe this magic and the ‘lady in the box’ magic during the performance, was magical to me.
Gerard McCabe as always, excelled in his performance as Wishee Washee. One could clearly see how much he was enjoying being on stage equally as much as we were enjoying watching.
Mikey Jay Heath as Aladdin gave an equally brilliant performance.
On occasion he and Gerard just couldn’t help but laugh. Which of course added to our own laughter.
Catriona McFeely portrayed the character of Princess Jasmine to perfection and her costumes were exquisite.
Keith Lynch (Abanazar), James Lecky (Emperor) and Gary Crossan (PC Pong) entertained in each role brilliantly.
Of course the voice of The Genie (Ruairi McSorley, aka Frostbit teenager from Youtube) stole the show at times.
And on his 10th anniversary, William Caulfield (Widow Twankey) was as ever, a larger than life presence on the Derry stage.
Caulfield, the well known Northern Ireland writer, actor, comedian and TV star, dons the wig, dresses and make-up, and really does take ona whole new life. And one we couldn’t possibly change if one wanted to.
I was fortunate to catch up with Caulfield prior to the show on Wednesday. I asked him just what is it about Panto that he so clearly loves:
I just love doing Panto. Throughout the rest of the year I’m on my own when on stage. This can be a lonely time. I enjoy it but you drive to the show alone and you’re on stage alone. Here at Panto season there’s such a great comradeship with myself and the cast. Plus of course I’m not carrying the stage alone.
He added: “Panto shortens the Christmas season for me. There is such a long build up to the festivities and I get to work right up to Christmas. Then I get Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day off and it’s back to work again.”
William Caulfield oozes passion for the Panto stage and admits to never getting nervous.
“There’s no point in me getting nervous” he tells me.
“It’s the front 5 rows of the audience that should be nervous.
“I do get apprehensive in that I hope I do my job well, but no, no nerves.”
I must admit that last year was my first time seeing Caulfield in Panto.
I made a promise to myself after that show that I wouldn’t be missing it again for many years to come.
I asked William to describe his stage character for me.
He laughed and described ‘her’ as “absolutely nowt like me! William Caulfield is quite shy. Once the dress, the make-up and the wig goes on, I become a larger than life character. I become an entirely different person. The character arrives and then the voice comes.”
Caulfield said that he loves Panto so much that if he ever won the Lotto, “no-one would ever know. I’d just carry on doing this because I love it.”
I wondered if we can look forward to seeing himself on stage for another 10 years in Derry?
“Only ill health, or even death will stop me.” – Just what the Derry people want to hear!
On Wednesday night last, I, alongside the Derry audience went to old Peking.
We met the evil Abanazar who sought the magic lamp.
We even spent time in the ‘laundry room’. We watched Aladdin save the day. But throughout it all we watched an amazing cast perform a wonderful Christmas panto.
From the music of Ed Sheeran (Evergreen) to Kiss (Crazy Nights), this production had it all.
There were kids jokes, there were adult jokes, there was something for everyone.
Innuendo at its best prevailed. And there was good old fashioned romance.
There was a perfect combination of fun amid wonderful singing and dance performances.
The production showcased the abundance of talent that is in the city of Derry
But surely the song of that night has got to be ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’.
I’ll never listen to the popular tune in the same way again.
There will now always be, ‘6 boxer shorts, 5 Toilet Rolls, 4 pairs of trousers, 3 string vests, 2 football tops and a bra that could only hold 3’….there was of course snotty hankies, smelly socks and more, but the first day of Christmas will be forever etched in my mind with ‘a bra that could only hold 3.’
The laughter tears really were running down my cheeks.
If this is what William Caulfield can give us on this his 10th anniversary I can’t wait to see what he gives us over the next 10 years.
On Wednesday morning Caulfield told me that he’ll be doing Panto until his health prevents such….I can’t imagine one without him now.
The North West of Ireland is often forgotten. There is so much going on throughout the year.
At Christmastime we hear so much nationwide about the ‘Gaiety Panto’, but not so much about the ‘Derry Panto’. This is one which should not be forgotten.
This years Derry panto was summed up for me by the wonder in my little cousins eyes.
She experienced real magic that night. And because she experienced that magic, I did too.
The Derry panto, Aladdin, runs at Derry’s Millennium Forum until January 3rd. Book your tickets now and don’t miss the show of the season. Call the Box Office on (028) 71264455 or book online at www.millenniumforum.co.uk.