Best in show

As Frank Mackey marks two decades on the panto stage, he shares his be­hind the scenes di­ary, re­veal­ing what it’s like to write and bring a pro­duc­tion of this mag­ni­tude to life at Cork Opera House

Irish Examiner - Weekend - - News -

A night at the panto

Cork Opera House panto is a Cork tra­di­tion. Fam­i­lies have been flock­ing to panto at the Em­met Place venue for gen­er­a­tions. Over the last decade panto has be­come a pro­duc­tion that can stand up with West End shows.

As writer but also the ac­tor who brings Nanny Nel­lie to life I’m in a unique po­si­tion. It’s very dif­fer­ent to act­ing roles, where you get a script and take on a char­ac­ter. I live and breathe her, I know her ev­ery thought be­cause I cre­ated her. No one knows her bet­ter than me be­cause for three months each year I am her. This year I wanted to give an insight into what goes into bring­ing a panto icon like Nanny Nel­lie from pa­per to life. Come on a jour­ney with me...


It’s of­fi­cial. The magic car­pet will land at Cork Opera House in No­vem­ber 2018! We’ve still 15 shows of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to go and we’re al­ready talk­ing about the next panto. On my third last per­for­mance of Snow White I’m met by a lovely young mom telling me how much she en­joyed the show, she was stand­ing there with her daugh­ter who had just seen her first panto. This woman asked if I re­mem­bered her, ap­par­ently she had met me when she was a child her­self at panto 14 years ago. I was floored, some­times you for­get that Nanny is now at the age when she has re­ally been en­ter­tain­ing au­di­ences in Cork for gen­er­a­tions, and yet I haven’t aged a day – that’s the real magic of panto! Panto closes on Jan­uary 21 and we all let our hair down for the cast clos­ing party, we should be ex­hausted after the run, but we’re full of en­ergy on the back of the suc­cess of the run. It’s an emo­tional time as we’re all say­ing good­bye, but for many of the team we know we’ll see them again in nine months’ time when we start re­hearsals for Aladdin.


Be­fore the last piece of glit­ter from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has been cleared from the stage, we’re start­ing the process of writ­ing the script for Aladdin. I work with the di­rec­tor, and my co-writer Trevor Ryan on tak­ing this tra­di­tional story, adding some mod­ern twists and of course in­cor­po­rat­ing Nanny Nel­lie. We start work on pulling to­gether ini­tial ideas and thoughts in Fe­bru­ary. This in­volves a plot line and im­por­tantly the char­ac­ter­is­tics of our leads. To­gether we fig­ure out who the char­ac­ters are, I con­jure them up in my head so I get to know them and it makes it eas­ier to know how they’ll be­have when I write their lines. We’ve al­ready cast two roles – Michael Gren­nell will play Abanazar and Adam Col­beck-Dunn will play Wishee Washee (Aladdin’s brother). I’ve worked with Michael many times, he’s an in­cred­i­ble ac­tor and is a great ad­di­tion to the team. This year Michael plays a great bad­die which he will do bril­liantly, the au­di­ence love to hate him! We found Adam three years ago and we keep bring­ing him back, he’s an hon­ourary Cork man at this stage. Adam and Nanny are a won­der­ful com­edy duo that the small­ies and grownups in the au­di­ence lap up.


Be­fore I tell you where I am, re­mem­ber that while you are re­lax­ing with mince pies and mulled wine over Christ­mas I’m work­ing flat out! So right now I’m ly­ing in the sun­shine. I’ve just heard some kids singing Babyshark – surely we can have some fun with that….

But it’s not all rest for the month of March, I’m also head­ing to Lon­don to see some shows, mak­ing sure that what we’re pro­duc­ing is on a par with the best pro­duc­tions. Cork au­di­ences ex­pect (and de­serve) the best, and we’re de­lighted that they don’t have to travel any fur­ther than Em­met Place to see it.

I’m spend­ing a lot of time think­ing about the char­ac­ter of Jas­mine, I don’t want her to be a typ­i­cal fairy-tale princess – I want her to re­flect the girls and young women of Cork – she needs to be strong, in­de­pen­dent, more fem­i­nist than frills!


Trevor has just agreed time­lines for Aladdin with Eibh­lín Gleeson, CEO at Cork Opera House and the pro­duc­tion team. Au­di­tions in Cork, Dublin and Lon­don have been sched­uled and dead­lines agreed. The mar­ket­ing team have been in touch with draft scripts for the first ra­dio ads, I’ll be go­ing into stu­dio next week to record them.

Time for the se­ri­ous writ­ing to be­gin. I have to gather to­gether all of my notes from my phone, from my note­books, from con­ver­sa­tions with Trevor, snip­pets of over­heard con­ver­sa­tion, in­spi­ra­tions from pro­duc­tions I’ve seen. I’ll start pulling the first draft to­gether be­fore I sit down with Trevor again. Trevor is also bet­ter placed to put in the hi­lar­i­ous Corkisms. I’m from Cork but I spend over half the year out of the city so it takes me a while to be­come re-im­mersed in it, like! That said I’ve all the Nan­nyisms, the dirty lookin ee­jit, the doo doo do, and the howyaget­ti­nons?


The big news from Lon­don au­di­tions is our Ge­nie, Aladdin and Jas­mine have all been found – and they’re all Ir­ish. It’s im­por­tant for us to pick the best and bright­est to shine on the Cork Opera House stage, but the ac­tors also have to un­der­stand what we’re try­ing to achieve. A knowl­edge of the Ir­ish sense of hu­mour is es­sen­tial. It’s also a great honour to be able to pro­vide a plat­form for ex­ist­ing and emerg­ing Ir­ish stars.

Now that I’ve met all of the prin­ci­ples, it’s much eas­ier to write the script. I’m hav­ing lots of fun with Abanazar – I’ve taken some in­spi­ra­tion from the ITV sit­com, Vi­cious, fea­tur­ing Ian McK­ellen and Derek Ja­cobi. I’m re­search­ing a new dance for Adam too – ap­par­ently floss­ing is so passé!

Our Ge­nie – Barry Keenan – is mag­i­cal. We’re go­ing with a blue ge­nie – you wouldn’t be­lieve how hard it was to find a bald blue man in Ire­land, who can sing and act but there he was hang­ing out in Lon­don, look­ing for a rea­son to come home to Ire­land for a while.

The prin­ci­ples, the ensem­ble have now been se­lected and the dance cap­tain ap­pointed. The team dy­namic is so im­por­tant, they need to be able to work well to­gether and also man­age com­plete panto im­mer­sion for three months.


I’m writ­ing al­most ev­ery day now, I hand­write ev­ery­thing ini­tially. I even keep one be­side my bed – ideas come at all times of day and night.

Last night I woke with the idea that Nanny’s dress would be­come the wash­ing line in one of the scenes. I know our in­cred­i­ble cos­tume de­signer Joan Hick­son can bring this crazy idea to life! I spoke to her to­day and she’s on a shop­ping trip in Lon­don – not for her­self but for Nanny. Only the best will doo doo do for Nanny Nel­lie. We take our in­spi­ra­tion for Nanny from Mary Pop­pins, Dame Edna, Danny la Rue, but Joan also looks at his­tor­i­cal cos­tumes from the 18th and 19th cen­tury and takes in­spi­ra­tion from de­sign­ers like Dior, Gucci, Chanel, Vivi­enne West­wood and Alexan­der McQueen.


In­ter­me­di­ates and ju­nior dancers have been se­lected from Cork au­di­tions. The panto fam­ily is now com­plete. For the se­cond year in row we are de­lighted to have Ciarán Con­nolly on board as chore­og­ra­pher.

My­self and Trevor are

work­ing very closely get­ting the script to the next stage. We’ve such dif­fer­ent styles which helps cre­ate a much broader ap­peal. Our pro­duc­tions re­ally do ap­peal to ev­ery­one – jokes that a child will laugh at, jokes the grown-ups will chuckle at (and go com­pletely over the child’s head), fan­tas­tic sto­ry­lines, mes­meris­ing scenery and cos­tumes, in­cred­i­ble dance rou­tines, spe­cial ef­fects and the magic – so much magic.


I’ve just spent 90 min­utes sit­ting in a chair while our world-class makeup and wig artist, Maeve Read­man trans­formed me. The makeup is com­plete, the dress is on and as Maeve ad­justs the wig I turn and look in the mir­ror – and there’s Nanny Nel­lie wink­ing back at me. She’s here boys and girls. Nanny is back! Cork is in glo­ri­ous sun­shine and we’re in full cos­tume, make up and wigs (poor Barry is in Ge­nie Blue) and we’re stand­ing on the run­way at Cork Air­port. Aladdin’s car­pet has been cleared for take-off by the great peo­ple at the air­port, who are al­low­ing us take some fan­tas­tic PR pho­tos here. What a sight for the un­sus­pect­ing pas­sen­gers as Nanny went side­ways through the de­tec­tors at se­cu­rity.


On Tues­day Oc­to­ber 30 the full com­pany come to­gether. The Opera House team haven’t even had a chance to re­cover from jazz week­end and we’re in and full of en­thu­si­asm. I don’t know how the pro­ducer Rory Mur­phy does it. Here we are, a full team gath­ered to­gether in Cork at 10am on the Tues­day after a bank hol­i­day week­end. Con­tracts in place, ac­com­mo­da­tion for the out of town­ers ar­ranged, scripts in hand, and ready for ac­tion. In­terim CEO of Cork Opera House, Ash­ley Keat­ing gives a ral­ly­ing wel­come to us all and we’re off – three months of re­hearsals, tech, cos­tume fit­tings and 66 per­for­mances all start from to­day. I can feel it in the air, there’s some­thing re­ally spe­cial about this cast, all here in Cork to re­make Aladdin into our story.


To­day we’ve done our first full run through in front of an au­di­ence (well, some Opera House staff but still an au­di­ence). The danc­ing, the singing, the jokes, the act­ing and the story – it works. We’re tired but en­er­gised and look­ing for­ward to mov­ing from stu­dio into the Opera House. We’re ready.

It’s No­vem­ber 27, we are days away from open­ing night now and we’ve just fin­ished our dress re­hearsal. Of course there were lumps and bumps that needed to be smoothed out be­fore open­ing but it was just bril­liant. Open­ing night is upon us and I’m just about to step out onto the Opera House stage for the 14th year (this year though is my 20th panto). I’ve left Frank in the dress­ing room and I’m Nanny Nel­lie. I’m ready to step from the wings to the stage, through the mag­i­cal por­tal where you’re some­one else, in an­other world, where your job is to make peo­ple happy, make them smile, make them for­get about what­ever they’ve left out­side the doors of the theatre and make them be­lieve in magic… All the work, it’s all worth it for this. This feel­ing, it’s ad­dic­tive. It’s why I love what I do. Here I come boys and girls…. Doo Doo Do!

Pic­tures: De­nis Mini­hane

Frank Mackey as Nanny Nel­lie in the Cork Opera House pantomime, Aladdin.

Frank Mackey, be­fore the Nanny Nel­lie makeover.

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