THERE is a real buzz in the city of Cork this year. And it’s not due to the perennial anticipation of the festive season, the shop windows and streets twinkling with a thousand lights and generations of childhood memories, or Michael Buble’s delicious strains guiding us through the Christmas-laden stores.
The excitement lies in the welcome, and long-awaited, return of that age-old tradition of pantomime.
Oh yes, it is that time of year, the most wonderful time of the year, and, for the first time in three years, the theatres of Cork city will throw open their doors and welcome back families to celebrate with them.
It’s not that the theatres didn’t try to keep the show going during the darker days of the pandemic. Amid strict regulations, the Cork Opera House and Everyman Theatre adapted their approach so they could continue to bring pantomime joy to Cork families. Albeit online or to smaller audience numbers.
But, this year, life has resumed some semblance of normality and Cork audiences are in for a real treat.
No-one is more delighted to be back on stage than the two young ladies who have beaten off stiff competition to play the title roles in the Everyman and Opera House pantos this year.
Zoe Allman Walsh, who plays Cinderella at the Everyman, and Chloe O’Riordain, who is Sleeping Beauty at the Cork Opera House, are embracing their roles with infectious joy and enthusiasm.
Zoe, 21, is in her final year studying international languages at UCC. She also studies dance, singing and drama in CADA. Cinderella is her first professional production.
No stranger to the stage, theatre is stamped on her DNA. Zoe grew up in a household where everyone, from her parents to her siblings, was actively involved in Cork arts so it is little wonder she is drawn to that world.
“As cringy as it sounds, this is a dream come true for me,” said Zoe, “I’m truly grateful to be getting the opportunity to be part of such a huge Christmas tradition and to play such a significant role like Cinderella and all that she embodies and represents for young children. It really is emotional for me.”
Zoe’s first taste of pantomime was in the children’s ensemble at the Cork Opera House.
“My first ever panto was Cinderella. So, it is really an incredible full-circle moment for me to now be playing the titular role.”
This isn’t her first foray into musicals. She has played lead roles in many productions including Penny in Hairspray, Annie in Annie, Ariel in The Little Mermaid, and most recently the second lead as Audrey in UCC’s production of The Little Shop of Horrors. She was also awarded a scholarship to the summer programme at the Institute of Arts in Barcelona. But Covid prevented Zoe from travelling.
Combing stunning vocals, acting and dancing, her interpretation of Cinderella is more modern and sassy than previous incarnations.
“Cinderella is a feisty, confident, boots-wearing entrepreneur. Exuding positivity, she doesn’t allow others’ negativity to crush her spirit.”
Of course, along the way she does also find true love in the shape of a handsome prince!
“Rehearsals are long and intense, but fabulous. Everyone is really lovely and I have learned so much simply by watching the other actors,” said Zoe.
“Catherine Mahon Buckley is just amazing and adopts an organic approach to the production, allowing us to explore and develop our characters on our own first. She encouraged me to wear Cinderella’s boots as I’m rehearsing, as they are so integral to who she is. And it has been a huge help.”
“I am so grateful and honoured to be part of this production and love every element of it. I genuinely can’t wait for the transformation scene, however. It is the pinnacle of the magical appeal of Cinderella and it is going to be amazing.”
Has playing such an iconic role whetted her appetite to pursue theatre on a more professional level?
“I would love to pursue theatre as it makes me the happiest. And, I believe that when you love something, it doesn’t feel like a chore.
“However, as my parents were involved in the arts, they always pushed me to secure a good education first and to have a back-up plan.
“During Covid, I could see how much of the industry was impacted. So, my goal is to try and do both, if possible. I love French and Spanish, but the panto has given me that extra bit of confidence to maybe give theatre a try. It is so important to have self-belief.”
Believing in one’s self is a crucial part of the psychological armour required for anyone embarking on a full-time career in theatre. No-one understands that more than 21-year-old Chloe O’Riordain, who is in her second year of Musical Theatre studies at MTU, Cork, and starring in Sleeping Beauty at the Opera House. “I’ve always loved creative writing and toyed with the idea of doing English literature in college, but theatre has always been the dream for me.
“I began dancing from the age of three with Sinead Murphy at Cork School of Dance, and I studied dance, singing and acting with Irene Warren at the Performer’s Academy for years.”
Among her many stage successes to date, Chloe has played Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, worked with many international choreographers, and was awarded scholarships for the Hollywood Summer Tour in Los Angeles, California and for the Summer Programme in the Institute of the Arts in Barcelona, Spain.
“I weighed up my academic options, but the heart wants what it wants” said Chloe.
“Everyone I knew had gone away to the UK to study (for theatre). It is very expensive and I wanted to have the full college experience.”
“I did audition for one London-based college, Laine, and loved the atmosphere there. And, when I got offered the place, it was like a switch flipped for me. I thought to myself, ‘there are people out there who think I’m good enough” and that moment helped solidify my career path. Then Covid happened and I had time to re-evaluate things.”
I decided to audition for the CSM Musical Theatre course. It was very new, the only one of its kind in the country, and we are blessed with teachers and fellow students who all share such passion for what they do and who want to be there.
The lecturers, headed by David Hayes and Deirdre Collins, want what is best for us and that radiates off them.”
This is the first year of graduates and the hope is it will create more opportunities for performers in Ireland.
Chloe’s underlying goal is to become the proverbial ‘triple threat’.
“I love all three (dancing, singing, acting) equally, but if I had to choose, dancing is where I started and it has a smidgeen more space in my heart!”
Chloe’s family too are all creative. “They paint, write, and draw.” Her first Opera House panto in the kids’ ensemble was in Snow White.
“I remember being overwhelmed by it all. I was only nine and the biggest thrill was to be in the same room as the princess.
“So, it is surreal to be that princess. If my 9-year-old self could see me now, she would be squealing with delight!”
“I am so beyond grateful for this amazing experience. To only be in my second year of training and to secure my first professional role is incredible.
“I wake up with a smile on my face every single day, knowing I’m going to be working with such lovely people.”
How does it feel for Chloe to be working with such experienced performers?
“I listen and watch their approaches to things, and have never learned so much in such a short space of time.
“Trevor Ryan’s creative vision is incredible. He is so funny and collaborative in his approach for my character.”
So, who is Sleeping Beauty then?
“Sleeping Beauty is strong and driven, but also sweet. And, of course, she saves the day.”
The future is very bright indeed for Zoe Allman Walsh and Chloe O’Riordain. These bright, articulate, intelligent, and über-talented young ladies have the world at their feet and so many potential avenues for their talents.
But, for now, their sights are firmly set in the magical lands of panto make-believe.
Sleeping Beauty runs at Cork Opera House from December 1.
Cinderella runs at the The Everyman from December 3.