When I was a kid, you knew it was Christmas once it was time for the school trip to the pantomime at the Grand Opera House. The bus to Belfast was always buzzing with excitement, and after we screamed, laughed and clapped our way through the show, the drive home was a much quieter affair. Since then I have had nothing but fond memories of the pantomime and so when SarahJayne Miskelly from the Grand Opera House invited me to attend the press night of this year’s show, I experienced that childhood excitement once again.
This year’s show is the epitome of fairytale magic: Cinderella. The cast include pop and theatre star Gareth Gates as Prince Charming, actress Jayne Wisener, who is best known for her role alongside Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s critically acclaimed Sweeney Todd, as Cinderella, and the ultimate pantomime icon, May McFettridge as Fairy May.
With such a stellar cast, I had very high hopes: I was not disappointed. From the outset, the laughs came thick and fast courtesy of Fairy May, who literally shone a spotlight on a few of the audience members (un)lucky enough to be seated next to the stage, and ‘welcomed’ them in her inimitable style. Throughout the show Fairy May excels in entertaining the kids in the audience as well as ensuring the adults also roar with laughter. May McFettridge has been a constant in Belfast pantomimes for as long as I can remember and judging from last night has continued to only get better and better.
Once the audience were well and truly warmed up, it was time to meet Buttons, the poster boy of being ‘friendzoned’, who was played to absolute perfection by the fantastic Michael Joseph. As well as a clear flair for the comedic through the performance, Michael Joseph, as Buttons, was truly engaging and charming and actively encouraged children of all ages to interact with the show.
Next it was time to meet the show’s namesake, Cinderella. Jayne Wisener is made for this role; as well as being gorgeous, she has a captivating stage presence and it did not take much convincing to believe a prince could fall for her charms. We couldn’t have Cinderella without her flamboyant ugly step sisters, who were played by Gerard McCabe and Tommy Wallace. On terms of a double act, these two were on fire. Layering gaudy costumes, big hair and cartoonish makeup, the characters of Alesha and Amanda demand the audience’s full attention. They are also played with a humour and an unabashed relish by McCabe and Wallace, ensuring they are characters you simply love to hate.
Laughs also came from Vatman (Damian Patton) and Robin (Tom Rolfe), these two have slapstick comedy down to a fine art. As well as hilarious dialogue, there is a real sense of physically in their performance, from their movements on stage right down to their facial expressions. These two are on the search of Cinderella’s father, Baron Hardup, who is seriously in debt to the Crown. Although the Baron, played fabulously by Paddy Jenkins, does not have the most stage time, he makes every second count injecting each scene with wit, fun and a jubilant energy.
After the scene has been well and truly set, it was time to meet Gareth Gates’ Prince Charming. With a desire to meet an ordinary girl, Prince Charming swaps places with his man servant Dandini, played by the delightful Jordan Harrington. It is during this ruse that Prince Charming meets Cinderella. Gareth Gates makes a fantastic Prince Charming. Packing impressive vocals and almost as impressive dance moves, it’s easy to see how he could sweep Cinderella off her feet. Whilst Jayne Wisener and Gareth Gates had a definite chemistry as the lovestruck couple, what I did not expect was how adept they both were at comedy. Whilst singing ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ could easily have been a sickly sweet sugar high, both actors, as well Michael Joseph, transformed it into a stomach aching laugh fest.
In addition to a talented cast, what makes Cinderella such a spectacle is the superb production. The scene when Fairy May is getting Cinderella ready for the ball is stunning and truly magical. Props are used in wonderful and unexpected ways: you will never believe a balloon could be so hilarious until you see one used in such an original way as in the scene between Fairy May and Buttons.
This is not a show just for the little ‘uns. With jokes for the big and little kids, this really is the perfect show for the whole family and if you haven’t got tickets yet, I cannot recommend Cinderella enough: I literally cried with laughter. With current pop references, outstanding dance numbers and laughs galore, last night, probably 25 years after my childhood visits, I left the Grand Opera House completely spent from screaming, laughing and clapping along. I can honestly say you never outgrow the magic of the pantomime, and I know I will definitely be first in line for tickets to next year’s production of Peter Pan.
Cinderella runs at the Grand Opera House until 15 January 2017. For tickets visit: https://www.goh.co.uk
PS. Thank you ‘dairy’ much to Dale Farm, sponsors of Cinderella, for the very generous goodie bag full of all my favourite things: cheese, milk, cheese, custard, and more cheese! Love it!