I am alone, in the semi-dark, and my heart is pounding so loudly that I fear it will give me away. I’m not exactly in hiding, but I am lurking, and hoping that I’ll make it through my ordeal in one piece, but the atmosphere isn’t helping.
It’s dark, and it’s smoky — billows rise up from the ground, wrapping me in their ghostly tentacles — but it is the screams that are the worst, shrieks and bellows, screeches and wails, that batter my eardrums and seem to be affecting said beating of my heart, raising my pulse until I want to flee the scene, cover my ears, hide, whimper in the corner. I’m not in Baghdad. I’m in a pantomime, and I’m about to go on.
DECEMBER 4th: MEET, GREET AND MEASURE
It's a rehearsal room like any other, three walls of mirrors, a ballet barre running in tandem with the mirrors. Just up the road from the Tivoli, where Karl Broderick's Peter Pan -- this year's Cheerios panto -- will debut on December 18th, the space has been carved out of a building that appears to have once been a school. The buzz of the work misses a beat -- it's almost impossible to detect, but it's there -- as I enter: a stranger. Who is she, and what does she want?
Well, I don't know if it's what I want, per se, but I am the journalist who is going to have a brief walk-on part in this production. Sure, it's a great story, but in my mind, I am the potential spanner in the works of the thing. The cast and crew have been toiling solidly for almost three weeks by the time I creep into the room, and I can't imagine that anybody's ready to toss the confetti.
I needn't fear: they're all professionals and enthusiastic, and the ebullient Broderick has got my script ready for me. Okay, it's a page, a sheet of paper, not a script. I am Florence the maid, and I have three lines, and my movements are explained to me in theatrical shorthand by the playwright. I'm to come on after the first big dance number, Good Morning Neverland (set to the tune of Good Morning Baltimore from Hairspray). What happens is that "all the maids and all come in, and it's a big dance routine, and then they'll all be like, at the end, 'Good morning da da dum!' and everyone will stop, and they'll pose, then what usually happens is buh buh de buh buh bum, and they come out of their pose, and the maids go off". Broderick gesticulates expressively. "But at the end, you'll come in with two pillows, and do your lines, and go back out the same door you came in. Is that okay?"
Sure. I guess.
I'm introduced to the seamstress, Florrie O'Brien, to the leads -- Alan Hughes of TV3 fame, and equally as recognizable in his guise of Sammy Sausages, a stalwart of the Broderick oeuvre; Joe Conlan, who plays Buffy, the pantomime dame, a lovely man who talks quite freely about nerves on the night of any show; Aimee O'Sullivan and Donal Skehan, the adorable Wendy and Peter; and, of course, Brian 'Captain Hook' Dowling.
I am led by the hand through my scene by director Darren Crosbie, and everyone smiles at me, and I sit to watch some of the rehearsal. I've been to pantomimes before, and the form wouldn't figure very high up on my hit parade of performance styles, but, by the time I leave, I love everybody and think it's the greatest thing going for the holiday season. I begin to wonder what my make-up will be like. Will I need to wear a wig? Do I have to get new shoes?
DECeMBER 10th: DRESS REHEARSAL
I forgot to bring my script. Equally, I forgot to learn my lines. There are only three, after all, but I'm not entirely sure how I thought I'd learn them if I didn't try, despite their sparse number. I'm sure somebody else will know them, like Karl, or Darren, because, clearly, somebody has to; it just doesn't happen to be me.
Darren, I can tell, wants to sigh when I say I don't have my page. He intends to lead me through the thing by the hand again anyway, this time on the fully dressed set. I'm beginning to think that it may be for the best if I don't start overthinking this and get stuck into motivation and back-story after all. Who is Florence? How long has she worked for the Darlings? Did she work her way up from the scullery to the relatively lofty position of personal maid to the Darling children? Most importantly, does she have a boyfriend?
There's an awful lot going on today. The Tivoli has been transformed, and the big barn of the place has been rendered glamourous and cosy by Richard Levin's well-executed set. Hughes is delighted to be in the Liberties space: "When you say the Tivoli, it's a recognisable space, it's like the Gaiety, people know it. I think that some theatres can be too big -- the Tivoli's nice and intimate."
There are hordes of children lolling about the place -- very controlled lolling, it has to be said -- and the flying scenes are being rehearsed. Skehan swings out from the stage's left wings and, with increasing grace and aplomb, affects the ease of the boy who refuses to grow up. Is it difficult, this flying lark? "It's hard, because you're relying on this other person, and you can't be looking at them, you have to make it look seamless." Donal thinks my name is actually Florence -- I must be doing something right. I am becoming my role.
Everyone is fairly distracted, and there's an intermittent ear-splitting squawk of a power drill, and the music blasts occasionally as levels are checked. Karl talks to me and keeps his eyes on a million things at once; Alan roams the house, presumably re-running his more-than-three lines; I finally meet Jenny-Lee Masterson, who looks fab as Tinkerbell. I try on my costume which has a poofy skirt (I'm delighted); in the midst of chaos, I walk through my scene and, frankly, when I'm done I flee because the energy is electric, and I'm getting nervous again.
DECEMBER 12th: THE BIG NIGHT
"If you never get nerves," Joe Conlan assures me, "there's something just not right. There's such a buzz around the place, and then you get out there, you get on, and the adrenaline -- that's the magic of it. You can't beat live theatre." He says this as he warms up, paces around, and goes over his script.
This encourages me: all the way into town, on the bus, across the Millennium Bridge, up through Cornmarket, I'm saying my lines over and over. They are thus: "That's quite enough singing for one night! Off to bed with you! Now, sleep tight ... don't let the bedbugs bite ... nighty night!"
I say them in my head, that is. When Jenny-Lee asks me what they are, I say them aloud, stumbling all over 'bedbugs bite' -- and smell danger.
I have no time to panic, as things start happening very quickly: Kip Carroll takes pictures as I put on my make-up, sweat causing my powder to cake unattractively; I'm in costume, but don't have a cap -- Karl said something about a cap, I need a cap! And Florrie whips one up in about a minute; I run through my scene with the actual words, and with the actual boys playing John and Michael (Stephen Murphy and Brian Fitzmaurice Condron); I am not nervous, all of a sudden; a few photo ops with some of the lads; the 15 minute call is given; the kids in the show quiz me about my part and I get them to talk about themselves, because I'm suddenly nervous as a bag of cats again; I get miked up; the five-minute call is given; the overture begins; and there I am, standing in the wings, wondering if I'm going to puke up a lung.
And then, it's my cue, and there I am, onstage, and I do it. I kind of stumble over the word 'bed' and it comes out sounding funny in a good way (I find out later that Darren thought I was milking my part). I am fine, I don't fall down, I say "bedbugs bite" like I've been saying it every day of my life, and then -- I'm off. And I just kind of stand there, in the wings, and wonder if I can do it again.
Everybody said I was great, really good. This is all said generously, but with an undertone of surprise -- it could have, in fairness, all gone horribly wrong. I watch a bit from the house, really enjoying seeing everybody having a ball doing their jobs well, and I get my own special bow at the curtain call.
Off into the miserable night, I clutch my opening night flowers and breath the first easy breath I've taken since 3pm that afternoon. Would I do it again? You betcha. But next time, I wanna be a pirate. hq
The Cheerios Peter Pan panto runs in the Tivoli Theatre until January 25th. See www.tivoli.ie for details and booking