Who doesn’t love a drag queen? Republicans, apparently, judging by the number of bills filed in red states seeking to ban drag performances, prohibit children from attending them, or classify them as adult-oriented businesses. Really? You’re going to cancel Ru Paul and Mrs. Doubtfire?
In Europe, going to a pantomime (more familiarly, a panto) is a cherished Christmas and New Year’s tradition, much like going to church on Christmas Eve or trying not to blast your fingers off while celebrating the new year.
A panto is a fractured fairy tale that’s hosted by a dame, generally a guy in a dress. Cross-dressing usually features prominently, as do music, bad jokes, double-entendres, triple-entendres (thruple-entendre, anyone??) and much hilarity. And fart jokes. Definitely fart jokes.
I had never heard of a panto until we started going to Europe regularly during the fall months, but it’s become a tradition for our whole family. Shortly after we arrived in Belfast in January 2017, I bought us tickets for the Belfast panto at the Grand Opera House, which that year was “Cinderella.” Even a few weeks after the new year, tickets were nearly sold out. For our performance, the audience was composed mainly of schoolchildren.
Let me put that in italics: The audience was composed mainly of schoolchildren.
They were young. They were in their school uniforms. They were laughing hysterically. They weren’t being groomed.
The Belfast dame is May McFettridge, who’s been hosting the holiday panto at the Opera House since 1990, save for the pandemic year. She also works tirelessly for UK charities that support disadvantaged children, so much so that she was awarded a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) for her charity work and had an audience with Queen Elizabeth in 2007 at Buckingham Palace.
The Grand Opera House lobby features busts of two people: the architect of the building – and May McFettridge, who was given her own bust during her 25th panto in 2014. John Lineham, who formerly was a car mechanic, has a wife and two daughters.
Let me put that in italics: John Lineham has a wife and two daughters.
He became an accidental drag queen when a relative who was hosting a radio show asked Lineham to phone in to liven it up. He pretended to be a Belfast housewife, the show was a huge success, and May McFettridge was born.
The Grand Opera House closed (fortuitously, as it turns out) after the 2019 panto for a year-long refurbishment. The venue was supposed to open in time for the 2020 panto, but Covid intervened and delayed the reopening. In March 2022, Prince Charles was on hand for it, sharing a few quips with May.
In Shakespeare’s time, men assumed both male and female roles. That tradition lives on today in the modern panto. Nothing to see here but entertainment for the whole family.