A fairytale of old Cork

 

Like a rubber-soled thief, it creeps through the lanes of Blackpool, swirls in a wisp down the cobblestone spindle of Castle Street and wafts ephemeral by the slimy green waters of Morrisson's Quay. This spectral manifestation is a ghost of Christmas past and this is its old-time terrain, the streets where the howls and yelps of the Cork pantomimes were carried on the foggy thin air of shivery winter nights.

Billa O'Connell can list them all. "I remember when there were seven or eight pantos on the go in Cork. Father Matthew Hall, the Ancient Order of Hibernians on Morrisson's Island, Blackpool Hall, the Catholic Young Men's Society on Castle Street, Father O'Laoire Hall, Gurranabraher. There was no telly that time, you see." Happy days indeed. This year, telly and all, Cork's micro-cosmos will still manage to sustain two full-scale pantos. Elsewhere, perhaps, the festive tradition flails maniacally to survive in an age when children have to be manually disentangled from their Sony Playstations, but it seems alive and kicking here. Jack And The Beanstalk at the Opera House and Aladdin at the Everyman Palace will both do solid business, with pre-booking for both productions up on last year's tote.

Billa, Leeside's most notorious cross-dresser, first took on the mantle of a feisty panto dame in 1948 and will again be on duty at the Opera House. "There's nothing better than working with the children," he says, reversing the old showbiz maxim. "They shout at you and they shout with you, they carry the whole thing through. There's no better feeling."

Pantomime came to Cork in 1845. Knowing a runner when he saw one, an impresario called Frank Seymour staged a version of Aladdin at the old Victoria Theatre on Cook Street. The public was smitten and smitten bad. Seymour left town a few years later, destitute and under something of a cloud, but a tradition had been put on track and it still chugs proudly on.

In the bleak mid-winters that followed, as the country emerged from the apocalyptic ravages of famine and mass emigration, the people of Cork needed their revels. Some pantos were staged at the Theatre Royal, now the GPO, but the focus soon switched to the relatively swank splendour of the Munster Hall, which was about to become known as the Opera House. Production standards began to essay a steady ascent with the annual arrival of J.F. Warden's famed Belfast company. Other sophisticated troupes, usually from across the water, followed. But there was a problem. The shows would only hit Cork once they'd finished their festive runs elsewhere and as there's nothing sadder than a panto in February, this provided a crucial impetus for local groups to emerge. By the 1930s, local geography and history was beginning to colour the multiple Cork pantos. Set-builders used the Coal Quay and Shandon as sources for their design and Babes In The Wood mysteriously migrated to the thickets of Blarney.

A few years on, Billa arrived on the scene. "Before I was ever let near a stage, I was selling the programmes and taking the coats. My whole family was involved in the pantos back then."

Bill became Billa at the AOH. "But the big ambition for all of us was to get to play in the Opera House." The call came from the Bridewell Lane in 1955, but with the rehearsals in full swing, and Christmas just two weeks away, the Opera House went on fire. Crowds gathered outside and stood to watch it burn.

"I remember it all too well," says Billa "because I was just after getting married, we hadn't a bob and we were supposed to be furnishing the house out of the panto money!"

When the Opera House finally re-opened in the late 1960s, Billa had his chance and he's played there most Christmases since. "Every Christmas day, just after the dinner, I'd be upstairs learning the lines. Then I'm a stickler for time. Every night of the show, I'll get to the Opera House at quarter past, twenty past seven. If I leave it later, I'm not at my ease and it upsets everything."

Billa is by no means the only legendary Corkonian involved in Jack And The Beanstalk this year. It's directed by Michael Twomey, best known as Miah from Chah and Miah, and features old favourites such as Jim Queally as The Baron and the irrepressible Barrett and Sullivan as Mope and Dope. And, of course, there's the McTeggart dancers and the kids from the Montfort school.

"We have a formula that's proved itself and proved itself and proved itself again. Tradition, tradition, tradition. It's all about tradition and it's very important for the children that it's kept up."

Across the bridge and around the corner, the final touches are being daintily applied to Cork Amateur Dramatic Association's production of Aladdin at the Everyman Palace on MacCurtain Street. It's somewhat fitting that the first panto to be staged in Cork is revived at the Palace at the end of its centenary year.

When it opened as the Palace Theatre of Varieties in 1897, the world was a curious and distant place. In front of me, I have a photostat of the Palace's first newspaper advert. It's bordered by "De Paper's" list of news briefs for that morning. There's interesting reading, some of it strangely familiar: "Accounts from Skibbereen regarding the mackerel fishery on the west coast are of a dispiriting nature." There's admirable bluntness from the pre-litigation culture: "Jean Tejads, one of the survivors of the lost French liner, Ville de Saint Nanaire, has gone mad." One item is shockingly contemporary: "Seven persons are in a serious condition at Weston-super-Mare, it is alleged from having partaken of compressed beef."

To take Cork's mind off such dreary matters, Palace proprietor Dan Lowery II offered Millis the Marvellous Australian Ventriloquist, Prof Jolly's world-renowned cinematographic and other delights of the naughty 1890s.

Theatrical competition is nothing new in Cork: Lowery and Co were up against the Empire Theatre's presentation of Mr Walter Stanton, "Rooster Impersonator".

By the time its first yuletide ebbed in, the panto scene was choc-a-bloc and the Palace decided to steer clear of the genre. In the 1930s, though, it caved in and Jimmy O'Dea would arrive down from Dublin to camp it up in an inimitably extravagant fashion as the panto dame. The Palace eventually became a cinema and only resumed its theatrical duties with the emergence of the Everyman company in the 1960s.

Pantos are again a mainstay and have been running every year since the start of the decade. Paul Dennehy, who scripts and directs Aladdin, says the Palace production is less traditional in tone than its counterpart at the Opera House. "What we've done, in essence, is we've taken the basic form of traditional pantomime and attempted to bring it up to date for the late 1990s." To this end, there'll be special guest appearances from boy-band Azis and much technical trickery. The scenes have also been trimmed to byte-sized episodes.

"If you look at the Disney version of Snow White, which was their first feature, and compare it with their current films, there's an incredible difference in scene-lengths. Children are coping with an absolute barrage of electronic media these days and we felt we had to keep this in mind."

The central thread of the fairytale remains in place, with audience participation aplenty and endless opportunities for call-and-response. Aladdin also features old hands from the Cork stage, with Jim Mulcahy turning out as Holly Fortune and Catherine Mahon-Buckley as Rancide - The Evil One.

Both the Cork pantomimes run from St Stephen's Day - that's the traditional opening day for pantos, you see.