Monday 19 November 2018

Thirty nine years of putting on the panto!

The Coolera Dramatic Society captures the magic of Christmas for Sligo audiences, Jenny McCudden reports

1979. Chances are if you were born a boy in Ireland that year John Paul featured somewhere on your birth cert.

Not only was it the year young people across the country camped out for the arrival of the Pope; it was also the year of the child.

And with that in mind, a group of drama enthusiasts from the Coolera peninsula got together to stage a Christmas Pantomime in Sligo for the first time since the mid-fifties.

Five years earlier, the Coolera Dramatic Society had been formed in Kilmacowen, and it was a cohort of members from the group that got the Panto up and running. Amazingly today, many of the same people are still integral to this annual production, a highlight on the local festive calender.

"We've been going now for 39 years," says Bobby Jones, a founding father of Sligo's pantomime. The 72-year-old shows no signs of retiring. Not only has he directed at least 25 of the shows, he has been on stage as the 'bad guy' every single year.

Back in 1979 the biggest challenge was where to stage the show, he recalls. The late Sean Byrne of the Baymount Hotel came to the rescue as Bobby says: "We approached Sean and he agreed to allow us use the Silver Slipper Ballroom in Strandhill. We put on Robinson Crusoe for five nights and one matinee."

People came from miles around. Bobby adds: "There was snow on the ground but buses came from all over Connacht. We had no idea it was going to be as popular as it turned out. We thought it would be a one-off."

How wrong they were. The annual Christmas production got bigger and better every year and is now a firm favourite with families all over the North West.

"It means people don't have to travel to Dublin," says Brian Devaney, the grand old dame of the Coolera Panto.

Fully accustomed to oversized colourful frocks, jokes, jigs and reels, he has been playing the role since the first ever show, having missed just two years for personal reasons.

Brian believes part of the magic of the Coolera Panto is down to its localisms: "People can relate to us. There's lots of local fun, wit and humour in it. We put our own stamp on it. You can be as outrageous as you like and it gives us a chance to have a whack at people, politicians and the like!"

When cast that first year as the Dame, Brian was unsure as to why they choose him but it's a role that has grown on him. Indeed the award wining actor is one of the best Panto dames in the country. So what is it about the role that he enjoys?

"I absolutely love the interaction with the audience and the feedback. Humour is a huge part of the role. The Dame has a wide appeal. There's jokes for the adults and kids. One of the nicest things about our Panto is how the adults enjoy watching the reaction of the children who are completely enthralled by what is going on."

That captivation doesn't end when the lights come up. As Brian says: "Children talk about the Panto for weeks and months after seeing it."Director Bobby Jones says the show is suitable for children as young as three and a half to four. And of course, you are never too old for Panto!

Sligo Champion