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Diary of a Dame

It’s that time of the year again (oh no it isn’t!), so Jamie McDowell dropped in on Belfast’s most-loved panto character, May McFettridge, as she prepares for her latest role in Jack And The Beanstalk at Belfast’s Grand Opera House Opera House.

For 22 years, Belfast's best-loved Dame has trodden the boards at the Grand Opera House during pantomime season. John Linehan's alter ego, May McFettridge, has kept children and adults alike chuckling all the way through the seasonal panto whether she's taken on the role of Nurse May in Snow White, The Fairy Godmother in Cinderella or Sarah the Cook in Dick Whittington.

This year John goes back to playing Dame May Trot in Jack And The Beanstalk with Aidan O'Neill and Paddy Jenkins.

It's the third time he's performed in the show in his career and, though he admits he's getting on a bit, John can still perform like the best on Broadway when it comes to putting on a spectacle to remember.

Though stepping on stage at the most famous auditorium in Belfast looks incredibly glamorous, it isn't always so behind the scenes. With the amount of costume changes and, due to the physical nature of panto, the running around, falling over and jumping about is tiresome work. Especially while wearing a heavy-duty costume designed to withstand the toughest of knocks.

But year in year out John rolls with the blows, the ups and downs, to do what he does best. We asked the man behind Dame May McFettridge to keep a diary of a day in the life of the Grande Dame of panto ...

Once the pantomime season starts I have to be completely devoted to it. So, from the first day of rehearsals, if I need to get a loaf of bread or anything out of Tesco, I have to do that first thing in the morning and make sure that I'm back in the house at 9.30 to be at the Grand Opera House for 10am.

My youngest daughter still lives with my wife, Brenda, and I. She works in childcare and gets up at about 7.30, so for the last few weeks I've been asking her to wake me when she gets up.

Timing is especially important during the rehearsal weeks, where we can typically be practicing for 13 hours a day.

During this period, we're trying to get the lighting right and things like costumes have to be organised and sized.

It's the elements like lighting, or positioning that can take either two minutes or two hours, so you really never know how you're going to be spending your day or what time you'll be getting home at.

I arrive at the Grand Opera House, and the first thing I do is sign in and pour myself a coffee. This is the first year that we've incorporated 3D into a pantomime, so we have a lot of ducking and diving to do because there's going to be bats and ghosts flying out from everywhere, and it's important that we're in the right position.

After 22 years in the panto at the Grand Opera House, I'm finding it's getting harder rather than easier.

Honestly, you couldn't hit my age with three darts. I'm 60 now. When I began in the panto I was 38 and running around playing football.

As well as this, my doctor says I'm suffering from a condition known as TMB — Too Many Birthdays. I try talking to my knees sometimes, but they never talk back. Nowadays, on top of the panto schedule, I have to fit in two sessions of acupuncture a week because my knees are starting to go.

During our rehearsal weeks I'll spend a bit of time moving about the place. Sometimes we'll run through our lines in the Baby Grand, to the side of the main auditorium, and sometimes it's in the auditorium itself.

Before a performance however, I'll try to stay in my dressing room with my script as much as possible. I've done Jack and the Beanstalk before, but I've the worst memory in the world. As well as this, the script changes from year to year. There are always lots of references to current affairs, so the script is always evolving. This year we mention things like the Euro, because there aren't many beans to go around.

This is when we get our half hour call, so we know to start finalising everything to do with costumes and make up. If the schools are off, the matinee can sometimes start at about 2.30, but if we're getting the schools in then the show starts at 1.30. That allows the teachers to get their pupils all back to school before home time.

I have some input into what my character says throughout my performance, and at the beginning of each show I have about a minute and a half to go out and welcome the audience.

This is solely improvisational work. I like to get the kids in the front row and the balconies involved.

I love the matinee. There's nothing like looking out and seeing 950 wee heads laughing back at you. They won't know what's hit them this year though, with all this 3D technology.

They'll have all sorts of things flying at them from everywhere. There won't be a dry seat in the house. There'll be a rainbow over the auditorium by the end.

We're no longer allowed to chuck sweets into the crowd because of health and safety, but the 3D show will make up for that. It'll scare the socks off them, all these objects flying towards them. Except for the kids from Belfast, they're used to that kind of thing.

The show ends, and after the audience has left, I'll go and get myself something to eat, which is nearly always pasta with chicken. It's important to get as many carbs in as possible and keep the energy up, because the day is only half over, and we've still the evening show to do.

The first one back to the kitchen backstage, whether it's me, Paddy Jenkins or Aidan O'Neill, gets the kettle on for a cup of lemon tea with ginger and honey and I'll maybe eat a bit of chocolate.

This gives you a bit of a lift in between shows.

During each show I have nine costume changes in total. Three of them in particular are unbelievably warm.

This coupled with the stage lights beaming down on you really takes it out of you. They're industrial strength costumes — not exactly Versace.

A lot of the time I'll try and put my head down for an hour and get some sleep, but if I really want to, I can take a quick run into the city centre if I need to do a bit of Christmas shopping or I can take a walk around the Continental Market.

The curtain goes up on the evening show. My grandson, Johnny, is just 13 years old. He's very musical and studies music at St Malachy's College in Belfast.

He likes to sit in the pit with the orchestra and watch what they do during the show.

I think he some day dreams of playing in the orchestra at the Grand Opera House.

The curtains draw and we're officially finished for the day, but this is just the beginning of the long run. The only day off I'll get from now until the end of January is Christmas Day.

The schedule is so tight that you really have to look after yourself. After having a shower and changing into my normal clothes, I'll enjoy a drink in the evening to unwind before heading home. I can't overdo it because I have to go through all of this again the next day, so it’s important to draw a line.

I only live ten minutes up the road, and so I get into bed fairly soon after leaving the city centre.

It's a time of year when family life effectively grinds to a halt, but I always leave my wife Brenda and my two daughters a nice photo of myself behind in case they miss me...

Jack and the Beanstalk runs daily until Saturday, January 21. For more information and tickets contact the Grand Opera House box office tel: 028 9024 1919 or go to

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