Belfast Telegraph

Battleaxe May McFettridge still reigns supreme as panto queen

By Sara Neil

It may be time to take down the tree and get back to work, but the Christmas party continues in the Grand Opera House for Belfast's most-loved panto dame May McFettridge.

The face behind the famous gappy grin and outspoken remarks, John Linehan, is celebrating being centre stage for 25 years and shows no signs of slowing down.

This festive season the former mechanic is Widow Twankey in Aladdin, sharing the limelight with former Steps singer Faye Tozer and Coleraine-born actress Jayne Wisener.

As the lights faded and the crew swept up the glitter after another performance, the 62-year-old took a moment to reflect on more than 2,000 appearances of wondering who was behind him.

"It doesn't feel like 25 years," he said.

"I don't know where the time has gone.

"The first couple of pantos don't seem that long ago, but as you get older it feels like Christmas comes every six months."

The stage has become a home from home for Lenihan, who has not been tempted to travel, as other pantomime stars do.

He explained: "For me to be here for 25 years, it's a testimony to the people of Northern Ireland who come religiously to see it every year.

"May's an institution. Well, she should be in an institution!" During that quarter-of-a-century, a host of well-known faces have joined John at the city's oldest theatre and some, like Ray Meagher (Alf in Home And Away), were more than just a cast member.

"Ray was here on his own in 1999, and he came to my house for Christmas dinner," said Linehan.

"He stayed a friend and he's a lovely man."

A production of Cinderella alongside Cannon And Ball left a lasting impression on John when a standard panto gag went wrong.

"With the plate routine you've a chute on either side where the plates come down and you're supposed to catch them," he explained.

"But I was going to one side, and the plates went down the other chute.

"Then I ran to that one, and they came down the other chute. I kept going to the wrong side.

"Eventually I collected six plates before I tripped and smashed them all with my forehead.

"I opened up my eyebrow, and the blood was pouring out of me.

"Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball were lying in fits of laughter.

"I had to get off stage and get sealed up, plasters on, make-up on and back on stage.

"But it was funny and we kept the fall in, so I had to take a tumble every performance.

"I ended up looking like Dave Boy McAuley."

This panto dame is well-known for giving onlookers their fair share of abuse, but whether as Mother Goose, the Fairy Godmother or Mrs Smee, there is no stage fright in sight.

John said: "There's no sense in everybody being frightened - the first two rows are worried enough!"

Aladdin runs twice a day until Sunday, January 18, and tickets are still available, although the evening shows are going quickly.

Background

May McFettridge burst onto the showbiz scene in 1987 and the bawdy Belfast housewife performed her first pantomime at the Opera House over the Christmas and New Year of 1989-90.

Since then she has appeared numerous times as Widow Twankey, as well as the Nurse in Peter Pan and Snow White, the Cook in Dick Whittington, and Mother Goose in the show of the same name. John gets one day off each season - Christmas Day - when his wife Brenda makes dinners before the two Boxing Day shows.

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