With only 65 days to Christmas, I can reveal that the most expensive pantomime ever held in Northern Ireland is being staged at Stormont.
Full-scale rehearsals are already underway and it’s expected that a big-top tent will be erected in front of Parliament Buildings. The Offices of the First and Deputy First Minister are being turned into changing rooms for the stars and the rest of the cast have access to the other ministerial rooms and, of course, to the Assembly Chamber itself.
The plan to stage a Christmas panto at Stormont is thought to be in keeping with the current character of the place. It will also add enormously to Belfast’s growing international reputation as a major entertainment venue. After the appearances of such mega-stars as Elton John, Pavarotti and Riverdance in Stormont grounds, the forthcoming lavish production is certain to beat them all.
The panto is a modern-day version of Cinderella, played out against the magnificent backdrop of Stormont’s steps and portals. The entire cast of more than a hundred will be seen dancing down the steps, Oscar-night style, in top hats and tails, singing an unintelligible mix of songs. No one in the audience will understand a word but then no one will care.
The stars of the panto, along with the full cast of 108 are commanding salaries and fees of £7m and that’s not to mention another £5m in expenses for what can only be described as an epic production.
Admission will be free, thanks once again to the extremely generous sponsorship of the Gordon Brown Charity Foundation. A spokesman for the panto said: “We are very grateful to the Foundation for its continuing support which is unswerving despite the fact that tens of thousands of people are losing their jobs and their savings and investments in the global-wide credit crunch.
“Where else in the world would you find such a charitable organisation to let us perform as we really, really want to, for our big Christmas audience at Stormont.”
The leading role of Buttons goes to the well-known east Belfast crooner, Peter Robinson. Iris Robinson plays a gay Cinderella, who has absolutely no interest in Prince Charming. Also appearing in a principal role, wearing a Belles of St Trinian’s uniform is Caitriona Ruane and the panto dame none other than that cuddly comedian, Martin McGuinness. The BBC’s Stephen Nolan is expected to make a guest appearance as one of the Ugly Sisters.
This is a panto with a difference. For one thing, there is virtually no dialogue between Buttons and the panto dame. Indeed, the audience will be able to sit back in their seats and enjoy long periods of absolute silence.
The one and only Caitriona Ruane has already made her mark in Educating Rita. However, Ms Ruane is best known for her uncanny ability on stage to play tricks with the audience. She also likes the audience to call out: “Oh no she won’t!” to which she shouts back, waving an old-fashioned school cane : “Oh yes I will!”
Insiders at the panto rehearsals say she steals the show as ‘Miss Take-it-or-Leave-it’, Cinderella’s post-primary tutoress. They say her forceful performance, reminiscent of Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, will bring the curtain down on the entire Stormont show.
There are other strong performances. Prince Charming will be played by that irrepressible bundle of fun and laughter, Michael McGimpsey. “The part was surely made for him,” says another Stormont source. “The challenge is to get him to stop smiling and laughing and to look sad and down in the mouth especially when ‘Miss Take-it-or-Leave-it’ throws herself off a cliff in a final dramatic act.”
Another highlight in the Stormont panto will be X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing skits. Ministers and members of the Assembly will appear in front of X Factor judges, Simon Cowell and Dannii Minogue, singing from their favourite hymn-sheets. Already, Ladbroke’s have installed the Reverend ‘Boxcar Willie’ McCrea as even money favourite to win but also in the running is Daniel O’Donnell look-alike, Jeffrey Donaldson.
The Strictly Come Dancing judge, Craig Revel Horwood, has been to rehearsals. “I have never seen anything like it,” he is reported to have told friends after watching several ministers take to the floor of the Members’ Dining Room. “ I would give them one out of 10 for effort and two out of 10 for teamwork. But as Brucie says every week at the end of our show: ‘Keep dancing’ and that’s just what they do.”
Insiders say it’s quite a moving and emotional experience, as the entire cast fills the Stormont stage at the end with the orchestra playing Save the Last Dance for Me.
A source who witnessed the rehearsal observed: “I think it had shades of the Titanic about it. There they all are, big Gerry Kelly leading the men in their white bows and black tails, Arlene Foster with the ladies in ball gowns slit to the waist, all in each other’s arms, waltzing the night away. Then the clock strikes midnight and they all turn into pumpkins.”
That’s it then. Don’t miss the biggest and most expensive pantomime ever staged in Belfast. Tickets are free now to everyone, young and old. The show will run all the way through November and the Christmas season. It’s likely to break all box-office records by extending well into 2009.
However, even at this late stage, the public can have a say in the Stormont Christmas pantomime. Just answer the following questions. Which Stormont minister will be the other Ugly Sister? Which should be played by May McFettridge? First out of the hat with the correct answers gets free entrance to a grammar school of their choice.