NOBODY could accuse pantomime star Niamh O’Mahony of having stars in her eyes. The 19-year-old from Lehenaghmore, who is studying English at UCC, is delighted to be playing the lead role of Beauty in the Everyman’s pantomime, Beauty And The Beast.
But having harboured a desire to have a stage career, Niamh has witnessed too many young actors shell out money to attend “prestigious colleges” studying drama, only to end up in jobs that have nothing to do with the theatre.
“You would think the battle is over once you get into one of these colleges, but it’s actually not,” says Niamh.
“A lot of people go through three or four years studying drama, paying out twenty grand a year, and end up doing something totally different. Obviously, it was my dream (to have a stage career) for years. I loved it and I still love it. It’s something I always know will be kept to one side but it won’t always be in my front view.”
Niamh, who played her first lead role as Red in Red Riding Hood at just 10, and is now playing the lead in the panto for the third year in a row, was very interested in dance when she was younger.
She joined CADA Performing Arts at the age of five and over the years focused on tap dancing, ballet and jazz dance, completing exams with LAMDA (London Academy of Dramatic Arts) and various other academies. She recently completed her Gold Musical Theatre LAMDA exam in which she received full marks and distinction under the guidance of Cork-based teacher, Pavla Moore.
“When I was 16, I was veering towards dance which is funny because a year later, I completely switched. I didn’t want to do dance anymore. I was more into singing. That took off for me. I was in a CADA production of Les Miserables at the Firkin Crane a couple of years ago, playing Fantine. I got positive feedback from it and it boosted my confidence in my singing.”
From the ages of 14 to 17 she says CADA was her “absolute life”.
“Everything revolved around it. Since I’ve gotten a bit older and am at college, I’ve lessened the CADA load and my focus is more on other things. I’m in my second year at UCC and I absolutely love it.
“I took a year out after sixth year (at St Aloysius) and worked in hospitality and did Aladdin at the Everyman. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to stay in musical theatre and do further study in London. It turned out to be something I didn’t want to pursue in the long run. So I decided to go with English. I’d love to go into some form of writing, maybe journalism. If I was to do that, I’d probably do a Masters. I do a lot of creative writing; poems and short stories.”
Niamh, for whom the desire to perform on stage is all about “putting on a mask and exploring being somebody else” loves the style of pantomime which is “so over the top”.
Under the direction of Catherine Mahon-Buckley, Niamh said this year’s Everyman pantomime is staying true to the Disney story, especially the latest live-action film of it starring Emma Thompson and Dan Stevens.
“I feel every child knows the story. Of course, with panto, it’s never completely true to the script. We have Ciaran Bermingham as the Dame who is doing a great job of providing some laughs. There are references to Hurricane Ophelia and Trump. We’re keeping it up-to-date.
“With panto, it’s all about the happy medium. You don’t want the parents sitting there for two hours being bored. You have to keep everybody interested. I think we’re finding the right balance.”
Niamh says there’s an important message for children in the scenario of Beauty falling in love with the superficially ugly Beast (although he does transform into a handsome prince.)
“That’s what panto is all about. The message ingrained from the start is for the beast not to worry about what the people from the village think. Just be true to yourself and to your heart.”
We live in an image-obsessed age, says Niamh.
“That’s especially true because of social media. When I was younger, I definitely cared a lot about what other people would have thought of me. While I’m only 19, I feel I have matured a lot, being in this industry. When I was 17, I was the lead girl in Aladdin. I worried a lot about what people would think of me. In rehearsals, I found it very hard to come out of my shell. I was self-conscious and felt I wouldn’t be as good as other people. I felt I had big shoes to fill.”
Niamh need have no fears. She is now a confident young woman, sure of her place in the world. She can see herself teaching drama or musical theatre, but on a part-time basis.
“I have all my grades for that. I’m doing my foundation course in musical theatre with LAMDA. But teaching wouldn’t be my main occupation.”
The artistic director of the Everyman, Julie Kelleher, played Beauty in the venue’s pantomime six years ago when she was 28. Her challenge was to portray a feisty teenager. Julie, who is an accomplished actor, singer and director, admits that she misses performing “a little bit, at times”.
“I was chatting to my mother about performing recently. We spoke about Bruce Springsteen and the need for adulation. But I was saying that it’s not so much that.
“It’s more about the stage being the place where I feel like I belong. There’s such a fierce sense of community when you’re performing. That’s particularly the case with panto. You get a lot of feedback from the audience. That’s a huge buzz.”
When Julie was starring in Beauty And The Beast in 2011, she was also singing part-time with a wedding band: “It was hectic.”
Julie is no longer working in the gig economy, going from job to job without any security. She is “glad in a lot of ways” to be out of it and in receipt of a weekly wage.
“It’s really tough going and very hard work. I feel for people in that scenario although there’s great freedom and liberation in it in lots of ways. But as a way of life, it’s really challenging.”
Beauty And The Beast is at the Everyman from December 9 to January 14. For tickets and booking see www.everymancork.com/