Having started out way back in 1873, the Gaiety Panto is a Dublin Christmas institution, a classically playful comedy returning night after night with plenty of stories… ahem… behind them.
This year, the age-old performance on offer is a stage adaptation of Rapunzel, featuring the return of Ireland’s most famous pantomime dame for the 28th time, as well as Ciara Lyons in the hair-y title role, and former Love/ Hate man Johnny Ward fitting right in as Johnny B. Goode.
For all the throwaway, sporadic feel of panto, though, the Gaiety offering is a serious undertaking, at least internally. For the cast, Christmas starts the morning after Halloween, with rehearsals underway in earnest.
“There are three days off scheduled for the entire run,” Ward tells us, as he returns to the Gaiety following his earlier appearances in Cinderella (2012) and Peter Pan (2014).
“It’s hectic, but I remember it as a child and it means a lot, it’s a real Christmas tradition. You have to be aware of that when you’re performing in it. I met my girlfriend through my part in the panto in 2012, so it has great memories for me more recently, too.”
Ward is better known for his role as Pauley in Love/Hate, with his character dying by falling from a balcony. He also stars in Fair City as Ciaran Holloway, so despite his earlier experiences, the panto is far from his usual style.
“Panto is frowned upon by some, especially those actors who only do film and theatre,” he admits.
“But I think it’s important to do. There are some great people here. Joe Conlan [the dame] has been doing this forever and doesn’t do anything else as an actor. He specialises because he’s just really good at what he does. Panto isn’t like film and TV, and it’s his forte. He’s a real gentleman, but absolutely nuts with it.”
There are technical challenges that come with the role, however, in particular as it continues night after night.
“There’s a part of the script that I read and just thought ‘that’s impossible’, looking at the stage set up, but I had the same experience last time, and it came off, so I’m sure we’ll do it,” Ward explains.
“The whole thing is really physically demanding, because it plays every day, sometimes twice a day. You end the run exhausted. You wake up at half 8, have sound check at half 9 or 10 o’clock. Then there might be a kids show or schools show at 11.
“At 2pm I’ll get a couple of hours to just wander around town a bit, get some food, and then we do it all again. It’s a challenge, but it’s really rewarding. I love watching the kids react.”
The noise, in fact, is part of the experience. “It’s an interactive thing, and that really adds to the experience. It’s full of young kids, ones who shouldn’t really be watching things like Love/Hate, but they all seem to know me as Pauley. Once, I was standing on the balcony in a Peter Pan scene a little after that Love/Hate episode ran, and one of the kids yells out ‘don’t jump’. I still get approached by kids calling me Pauley.”
With the Tivoli panto having made its way onto TV on recent years, Ward also feels the in-person side of the Gaiety (which has never been televised) is something special, something to be protected.
“Personally I don’t want it on TV,” he explains.
“It’s not about the cameras, it’s about the screaming and the interaction, about the tradition and the experience. You can’t capture that on television.”
Ward should know. There’s quite a step between the darkness of Pauley’s like and the lightness of a fairytale story like Rapunzel, but as we head towards December, that lightness just seems like a natural adjustment. It’s the spirit of Christmas represented in the business of the actor, a fun-filled slog that’s ultimately about handing their holidays over for the kids. Expect a little bit of magic.
Rapunzel runs in the Gaiety Theatre from November 26 to January 7, with tickets from €19.50, available now.