It’s a freezing cold Friday morning, and I’ve just asked a former Big Brother winner and a model for a joint quickie at the back of the room. I’m referring to a ‘quickie’ dance lesson, by the way, but risqué humour and double entendres are common currency at the moment in the St Nicholas of Myra Hall on Dublin’s Francis Street where the cast and chorus of this year’s Cheerio’s Christmas panto Cinderella are in rehearsal.
Stars Brian Dowling and Pippa O’Connor have offered to take me through the routine for one of the shows principle dance numbers, which just happens to be Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)’. Rehearsals only started a few days ago, so my teachers are still a bit sketchy on the details, plus they have a student who would have to study for a decade at the Royal Ballet School just to be upgraded to the “two left feet” category.
The show’s actual choreographer is at the other end of the room working with the chorus dancers, and no doubt would want no association with the “moves” - if that’s the word - that the three of us conjure. As we continue to mock the Dance Gods, the chorus line move in behind us to show us how it’s really done. I skulk off the floor and leave the rest of them to it.
TV presenter Brian is returning to the stage for the second year running, having played a rather effete Captain Hook in last year’s show, Peter Pan. This time round, he has graduated to an even bigger role - in every respect - playing an ugly sister named Bridie who promises to be something of a cross between Jordan and a drag queen from Priscilla Queen of the Desert.
“After Peter Pan ended in February, I went back to London to work for a while,” he explains. “Alan [Hughes] called me during the summer and asked if I’d be interested in coming back this year. I had a feeling the role wouldn’t be Prince Charming.
“This is a bigger role, and requires more acting so to speak, as well as more singing and dancing. So I had to think about it. I was nervous about whether I could pull it off. I also have to work on my Dublin accent because I’m paired with Buffy (played by John Lovett). Still, it’s nice to be home for Christmas with my family. I have Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off, so that’s a good break.”
What’s more, Brian says he once again gets to avail of the patented - and by all accounts highly effective - ‘Panto Diet’. “It really works,” he laughs. “I was in my skinny jeans last year after the panto finished. Maybe we should bring out an exercise DVD?”
For model Pippa, who plays the Fairy Godmother, this is her first time to tread the boards, and admits that there’s one aspect of the role that makes her more nervous than anything else. “I don’t know whether I’ll sing,” she says with a laugh. “We’re still talking about it. But if Brian can sing, I can too.” Brian is walking past as she says this: “Yes, we could sing Cotton Eye Joe or something,” he pipes in.
Pippa adds that she doesn’t mind working over the Christmas period, and says she’s happy to have a quiet one with her family, and her boyfriend Brian Ormond. “It’s only two months out of my life,” she says. “Once I’d decided to do it that was it. This will keep me well-behaved.”
The cast of Cinderella also includes this year’s Eurovision star Sinead Mulvey as the glass-slippered heroine, and TV3 presenter, and the panto’s producer, Alan Hughes as audience favourite Sammy Sausages.
This is Alan’s 17th consecutive year starring in the Christmas show. “This is what Christmas has become for me,” he admits. “I wouldn’t know anything else at this stage.
“It’s so much fun though. Brian is hysterical. He has us all in tears laughing during rehearsals. It’s a wonder we get anything done.”
Aside from big laughs and hectic musical numbers, pantos often make reference to topical matters, but Alan is adamant that the dreaded ‘R’ word is kept as far from the show as possible. “People come to the panto for escapism and spectacle. They don’t want to be reminded of any troubles in the world,” he says.
That doesn’t mean that he hasn’t noticed a definite shift, even since last year’s show. “Bookings for this year’s show are strong, but they are late,” he says. “There has been a definite shift since last year. More people are looking for discounts and specials. Everyone just doesn’t have as much money as they once did. I think what will happen is that people will decide over the holidays closer to the event. It’s pretty nerve wracking as a producer though.”
With that, Alan re-joins his cast-mates for more innuendo-laden rehearsals. “I’ve heard the prince’s balls are only massive,” Brian reads from his script. He looks at me and explains: “I’m talking about his balls - you know his dances, his parties”. He feigns an innocent look. “What else could I mean?”