The Gaiety Panto: “It’s a challenge, but it’s really, really rewarding”

Love/Hate and Fair City star Johnny Ward talks his return to the Gaiety Theatre for pantomime season

HAVING STARTED OUT way back in 1873, the Gaiety Panto is a Dublin Christmas institution, a classically playful comedy returning night after night with plenty of stories… ahem… behind them.

This year, the age-old performance on offer is a stage adaptation of Rapunzel, featuring the return of Ireland’s most famous pantomime dame for the 28th time, as well as Ciara Lyons in the hair-y title role, and former Love/ Hate man Johnny Ward fitting right in as Johnny B. Goode.

For all the throwaway, sporadic feel of panto, though, the Gaiety offering is a serious undertaking, at least internally. For the cast, Christmas starts the morning after Halloween, with rehearsals underway in earnest.

“There are three days off scheduled for the entire run,” Ward tells us, as he returns to the Gaiety following his earlier appearances in Cinderella (2012) and Peter Pan (2014). “It’s hectic, but I remember it as a child and it means a lot, it’s a real Christmas tradition. You have to be aware of that when you’re performing in it. I met my girlfriend through my part in the panto in 2012, so it has great memories for me more recently, too.”

Ward is better known for his role as Pauley in Love/ Hate, with his character dying by falling from a balcony. He also stars in Fair City as Ciaran Holloway, so despite his earlier experiences, the panto is far from his usual style.

“Panto is frowned upon by some, especially those actors who only do film and theatre,” he admits. “But I think it’s important to do. There are some great people here. Joe Conlan [the dame] has been doing this forever and doesn’t do anything else as an actor. He specialises because he’s just really good at what he does. Panto isn’t like film and TV, and it’s his forte. He’s a real gentleman, but absolutely nuts with it.”

There are technical challenges that come with the role, however, in particular as it continues night after night. “There’s a part of the script that I read and just thought ‘that’s impossible’, looking at the stage set up, but I had the same experience last time, and it came off, so I’m sure we’ll do it,” Ward explains.

50 RO’CK: The Middle-Aged Return of Ross O’Carroll Kelly

Rory Nolan as Ross O’Carroll Kelly

After twenty years of poking fun at south Dublin’s posh rugby culture, Rory Nolan reprises Foxrock’s main man at the Gaiety. This time he’s in his 50s.

Ross O’Carroll Kelly, Paul Howard’s satirical Irish Times mainstay, recently reached twenty years of printed tales. Howard’s rich, pretentious, egotistical and utterly hilarious rugby-loving character has had quite a ride. In the various tomes released over the years, he’s rescued friends from an African country he can’t pronounce, managed the Andorran rugby team, interfered in north-Dublin gang wars, and come up with more excuses for where he might have been last night than we could possibly recall.

The latest full-length offering, entitled ‘Operation Trumpsformation,’ was released last month In it the main man is knee deep in it again, while his dad is running a political campaign to build a wall around Cork, offending all comers, and wearing a suspiciously Trumpian hairpiece.

While the books are very much a present-day parallel universe, the theatre version of Ross runs to a different timescale: ‘Postcards From The Ledge’ leaves behind the present, and heads for the year 2029. The main man is running an estate agent, his daughter about to marry a man he loathes, and our hero still just a few good matches away from the Ireland squad, naturally. Rory Nolan plays Ross, as he has in the previous three different O’Carroll Kelly stage sagas, and this time he’ll be going it alone.

“I can’t wait for people to see it,” Nolan tells us. “‘Postcards From The Ledge’ has Ross on the cusp of fifty years old. He’s the managing director of Hook, Lyon and Sinker, and life has been good to him, Ireland is attuned in a way that it’s a good place to be if you’re Ross O’Carroll Kelly. We meet him on a day when he’s valuing a house in South Dublin, which turns out to be where he grew up, in Sallynoggin. Obviously, he’d rather it was in a different country. It’s conjuring up all kinds of memories for him.”

“At the same time, his daughter Honour is getting married to a guy he really doesn’t approve of. Maybe he’s everything that Ross isn’t. He’s on the road to total meltdown, and it just makes for great comedy. People love to see his up and downs, but I think they want him to get there in the end, too. I’m always surprised how audiences are always gunning for him. They really want  to see Ross win.”

Ross, of course, isn’t the brightest spark, and that’s part of the challenge for Nolan. “It is quite hard to act as stupid as Ross is,” he admits. “But Paul’s writing, I’ve really never come across anything quite like it. Playing Ross intertwines the comedy and the character. You have to follow the timing of what Ross is doing. It’s quite unaware. If you tried to acknowledge what was going on, it would fall flat on its face. There’s always something at stake for these characters, though, so it’s not just humor for the sake of humor.”