Wizard of Oz Joe bringing his panto magic to Belfast
Strewth! The first pantomime at Belfast's SSE Arena is being produced by a man who was raised near the venue but now lives 10,000 miles away in Australia.
Joe Rea from south Belfast is the impresario who has been planning for Aladdin from his home in Melbourne with the aid of the internet rather than a magic lamp.
"I could have done with my own genie," laughed Joe, who took the plunge into theatrical production seven years ago after a successful career as an actor.
Joe moved to Australia eight months ago after his solicitor wife Lyn was seconded down under with her legal firm.
"It was a fantastic opportunity for her career," he explained, "so she and I decided to go with our son Leo to Melbourne for a year."
The only problem for Joe was that he'd already sown the seeds for the panto at the SSE Arena before his flit. And in the best theatrical traditions, the show had to go on.
Joe said: "The SSE idea had been floating around in my head for a while. And the arena people were keen to transform the venue into a theatre space, so the panto fitted the bill perfectly."
Joe resolved that he could still produce the panto from Australia, and friends dubbed him 'the wizard of Oz'. But the time difference was one of his biggest problems.
"When we first came here in March, it was only nine hours ahead, so you could get a few hours' work done with people in Belfast," he said.
"But now that the clocks have changed, it means less hours to work together before someone is going to bed."
Joe, who is liaising with Martin Lynch on Aladdin, said the internet was a godsend, adding: "I couldn't have done any of it without technology. (Martin) and I have been working together since 2010.
"While we have separate companies, we decided to form a new partnership called M&J Pantos, so that we could collaborate on this show.
"I did a lot of research on what Christmas shows were available in comparable cities to Belfast and it was obvious that we were under-served for a large scale pantomime."
The SSE Arena is a cavernous venue, but it's flexible enough to host more intimate performances like a panto.
"The wonderful thing about the theatre format in the SSE Arena is that you can make it as big or as small as you want," Joe said. "We have decided we want to create an intimate feel so have opted for 2,500 seats per show."
Joe has assembled a strong cast to work with director Dan Gordon, and headliner is X Factor's Rhydian, who will play the baddie Abanazer.
Nathan Carter's 19-year-old brother Jake will play Aladdin.
Also in the cast is Rory McIlroy's ex-girlfriend Nadia Forde, the Irish model and actress who several years ago starred in I'm a Celebrity .... Get me out of Here.
Local actors include Ross Anderson Doherty, Chris Robinson, Christina Nelson, Naomi Rocke and Marty Maguire.