Happy Chinese New Year … Well, Kinda

Welcome to the Year of the Cock, Belfast style. At least on the streets around Queen’s University, you can see a fair number of Asian students, so maybe it’s not surprising that the city has a Chinese New Year celebration.

But what you may find surprising is that less than half the acts we saw during a public event at the Ulster Hall were Asian. The reggae band didn’t qualify. Neither did the Polish dancers. Or the belly dancers, for that matter. But what about the Scottish dancers, the Irish dancers or the break dancers? No. No. And, ah, no.

So Chinese New Year in Belfast was more of a melting pot event. Some of the acts were surprisingly good. Others were decidedly less so. But it was all good fun nonetheless. Marilynn just called it, “Sweetly multicultural.”

Reggae? REGGAE? No feckin’ way!

My favorite Internet radio station is Radio Paradise, but every time I hear a song from anyone named Marley, I hit the Play Something Different button as quickly as possible. I don’t necessarily hate reggae (love the Peter Tosh take on “Johnny B Good” and Sinead O’Connor’s “Downpressor Man”), but all Marley music sounds the same to me. Maybe I just like reggae remakes.

But the reggae act was by far my favorite. Not because I like reggae, but because of the lead singer, who played the bongos with such gusto and got the crowd on its feet. The break dancers were, good too. All Irish (I assume), and all together every step, pop, drop and cartwheel of the way. Maybe I liked it because it was the most surprising part of a very surprising event.

Among the expected (i.e. Asian) part of the show, of course I liked the Chinese dragons best. Since they were on the playbill, we would have been greatly disappointed not to have seen them. The show included three, actually, that performed both on stage and up and down the aisles of Ulster Hall.

‘Stairway to …’ Belfast?

Speaking of Ulster Hall, we stumbled upon a timeline of the venue while we were leaving. It opened in 1862 after construction that cost under 14,000 pounds. While not as grand as the Grand Opera House, it still is a great place to see a show.

And over the years, it has played host to a wide range of events, including the first Northern Ireland appearance of a British band called Led Zeppelin. On that night, March 5, 1971, the band performed live for the first time “Stairway to Heaven.”

You can hear that version on You Tube, but it’s not very good quality. Instead, I’d recommend this reminiscence from a writer for the Belfast Telegraph who attended the concert as a stubbly faced 18-year-old.

“That night in the Ulster Hall was the first public performance of Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven and we didn’t like it. Too ‘ballady’ for Led Zeppelin was our thoughts.”

Maybe someone will be talking about the 2017 Chinese New Year celebration 45 years later. Not likely, but few in Ulster Hall that night in 1971 thought that about “Stairway to Heaven,” either.

Panto is a raucous good time

A pantomime—or panto, as it’s commonly known in the UK—must be experienced rather than described. It’s equal parts beauty and bawdry, seasoned with large dollops of music, topical humor, sight gags and fart jokes. It’s the closest thing to a vaudeville performance you’ll find these days. The narrator is usually a man in drag, contrasting greatly with the fair stars of the production.

Going to a panto is a holiday tradition in the UK, much like we’d go to see a production of “A Christmas Carol.” On our trips to Europe during American Thanksgiving, we had noticed adverts for pantos on buses and in train stations in the cities we were visiting. One year, the star was John Barrowman, who many sci-fi and fantasy fans know from his portrayal of Capt. Jack Harkness in “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood.” Although some of the actors can be from the B list, the narrator usually is the real star.

On our first bus trip to the city centre, I saw an advertisement for “Cinderella” at the Grand Opera House, a venue that truly lives up to its name. The production extended well past Christmas, so I figured there wouldn’t be a more appropriate time to experience this UK tradition.

Trying to get tickets, however, was a challenge—even three weeks after Christmas. This was closing week, and many of the performances were sold out. The performance we attended, a Friday afternoon matinee, was full except for the neck-turning, slightly obscured tickets we managed to purchase.

For the Grand Opera House production of “Cinderella,” take a well-known story, mix in a handsome prince and a fresh-faced lead actress. Throw in a cross-dressing fairy godmother with half-moon disco balls on her dress where her breasts would be and Princess Leia bun hair with another disco ball on top. Top that with generous amounts of slapstick, familiar tunes with new words and loads of audience participation (the louder the better), and you get some idea of a panto.

The fairy godmother, May McFettridge, embodies the spirit of the panto at the Grand Opera House. She’s been starring in pantos here for more than a quarter century, honored in 2014 with a bust permanently installed in the theatre opposite that of opera house architect Frank Matcham.

The jokes flew fast and thick, poking fun at everything from the current political climate to Donald Trump. Talking about her origins early on, the fairy godmother says she “wakes up every morning where everyone hugs and kisses—Stormont,” a reference to the current political climate where the power-sharing agreement is in jeopardy.

Several jokes were aimed at Gareth Gates, who played Prince Charming. He was a runner up to Will Young in the UK’s “Pop Idol,” then lost out to him again for best-selling song of the year.

In all the raucous action, you could have missed the Grand Opera House Dancers and future stars who gyrated, pranced and tried to keep pace. But you couldn’t have missed the 10 school groups who packed the 1,100-seat venue. Not only did the fairy godmother call out each group, he also brought four pre-teens up on stage for some alliterative fun, repeating variations of “One smart fellow, he felt smart.” Say this out loud to yourself a couple of times, and you’ll get where the gag is going.

The first girl, a knock-kneed 8-year-old with long straight hair that kept getting into her eyes, failed miserably, substituting “fart” for “smart” each time, much to the crowd’s delight. Another boy started to say the “f” word, before stopping himself and repeating the phrase correctly.

If you’re looking for high theater, a panto will never be your thing. But if you want to experience a beloved holiday tradition like the natives do, a panto definitely is worth a look.